Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Three Keys to a Great Speech

We had the good fortune to hear our favorite speechwriting community guru, Vital Speeches of the Day editor David Murray, give a dynamite presentation on the elements of great speechwriting at last week's New York Speechwriters Roundtable meeting. It would be hard to do justice to David's "speechwriting jam" here, given the mix of poignant and hilarious videos he weaved into his talk. But we still thought it was worth sharing some highlights of his expert advice on the three key common components of a vital speech: an attention-grabbing opener, a clear intent to communicate, and an undeniable authenticity.

OPENING: The first minute of a speech is the time to wake your audience's imagination up. Start with a strong image or anecdote that will absorb listeners into the drama of your topic. As an example, David quoted a speech from March 2010 on the Communications Act—not, perhaps, the most riveting subject. Verizon VP Thomas Tauke opens by building an image of the crazy Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, taking the audience down "doors and stairways that lead nowhere" until, as David said, "we're all in that house and we're clamoring for it to be fixed and made rational." Tauke then compares the Mystery House to the state of communications, and the speech takes off from there. Start boldly—thanking the caterer is the perfect way to say, "My message can wait."

INTENT: The opening is the first step in conveying your intent to communicate. In an era crammed with symbolic statements that preach to the choir, the intent to communicate a simple, fresh, meaningful idea is often lost. Great speeches, David argued, occur when the speaker "really, really wants to get something out of his head into the heads of the audience." While many speeches are meant to be symbolic or convey accepted information, a compelling speech is only born from the need to share a message or an idea, no matter how basic. This may mean seeking out the enemy or taking a message public, rather than staying cooped up with insiders or supporters. Corporate speechwriters working with dry, straightforward material can stir up the client's natural enthusiasm by finding something that matters to him or her. Write from the intersection of the speaker's work and something he or she cares about.

AUTHENTICITY: Keeping it real is perhaps the most daunting and slippery aspect to keeping control of your audience. How do you convince your listeners, including those who feel like they have heard it all before, that you mean what you say? One way is to cry, as University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow did following a dispiriting loss, where there was no mistaking his vulnerability. Another is to meet a tragic moment with the kind of sincere eloquence that President George W. Bush displayed in his response to the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. Sometimes even monotone talks by the least charismatic figures can move and persuade listeners if the speaker conveys an urgent and unpretentious devotion to an issue. One of David's longest clips came from a 1969 hearing about a federal grant for National Public Broadcasting's childhood programming, which President Nixon wanted to slash. Anxiously leaning forward in his seat and speaking with halting slowness, Fred Rogers—the lovable sweater-vested host of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood—explained to the judge why his program could change a child's life. After listening to Rogers recite the lyrics to a song he had written for the show, the judge shook his head in wonder and said, "Looks like you just earned the twenty million dollars."

We turn to our speechwriting community—what other elements do you believe great speeches share? What are your favorite examples of an imaginative opening or a display of candor and authenticity?

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