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How to write and deliver a speech that inspires action

November 1, 2020

“Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

You know the line. You remember it. And you might even quote it from time to time. When President John F. Kennedy delivered those words in his 1961 Inaugural Address, he connected with people across the nation and compelled them to take action.

You may not have President Kennedy’s eloquence—or his team of writers—but you, too, can deliver a strong speech that will drive your target audience to support your cause, join your team or buy your products.

And whether in person or via Zoom, the most effective speeches combine strategic writing, advance planning and confident delivery. And, when done well, they can be a powerful tactic in many public affairs and marketing campaigns. So, let’s get started—11 tips to rock your next speaking gig and inspire your live or online audience.

1. Know your audience and what will resonate

Your audience wants to be informed, engaged and entertained. If you use material that won’t connect with them, you’re wasting your time—and theirs.

Think ahead about who will be in the room and understand what matters to them. Additionally, consider who you want to reach with your speech once it has been shared online or in the media. There’s a difference between the audience in the room and your target audience. Sometimes they’re the same, but not always. Deliver messages that will inspire action from your target audience, but don’t ignore the people in front of you.

 2. Drive your speech with a story, and fuel it with data

Humans connect with stories about other humans. We care about numbers, but we’ll remember a story. Strong speeches often use the narrative of one person or a group of people to bring a problem, opportunity or idea to life.

Where can you find original stories for your speech? Talk to your colleagues and employees, engage the community and stakeholders or consider your own personal experience. If you’re the person leading a campaign to promote a product or issue, it’s likely people will want to share their stories with you—and you should share them with your audience. That said, don’t forget to add statistical data to your anecdotal evidence. Stories backed by numbers tend to make the largest impact.

 3. Give a speech, not an essay

Write like you speak. Most people will watch or listen to your speech. Some might see a quote in the newspaper. Very few will read the full text (unless it makes history).

You never want to ignore grammar and syntax. But, rules can be broken, especially if it adds to the passion or pacing of your speech.

Use short sentences. Mix in a few long ones to help your terser phrases and sentences grab attention. Speak in active voice and pack in action verbs—both make your messages more vibrant and compelling. As you write, read your sentences out loud. Assess how the words and phrases interact. Keep your ears tuned to the pacing of your speech. If you’re getting bored reading it, edit it to make it sharper and shorter.

 4. Think about the sound bite

If you’re speaking at a rally or news event, you need determine the key takeaway you want people to remember. Ask yourself, “If this speech is meant to inspire, what message needs to be in the stories about it?” The answer will lead you to the sound bite you want reporters to use.

Write the sound bite to be concise and quotable. No longer than 10-15 seconds, if possible. Play with clever phrasing and colorful words. Make it grab attention. In your script or notes, highlight or underline the sound bite—this will serve as your cue when reading it. When you deliver the speech, hit the sound bite hard, state it clearly, and be sure you’re not looking down at your notes.

 5. Create a compelling, memorable Call to Action

That line from President Kennedy—it’s a Call to Action. It captures attention and challenges the audience to get involved and do their part. Strive to emulate it. However, don’t get so hung up on creativity when a simple, direct Call to Action can be just as effective. You can use the pacing of your speech and the imagery of your writing to build up to an easy-to-understand phrase that motivates your audience to act.

“Stand with us.” “Sign our petition.” “Experience a life enhanced by our technology.” Whether a candidate, an activist or a pitchman, the Call to Action is important.

 6. Be yourself, and show your passion

Speak from the heart. Sharing your personal experience will help you connect with your audience—no matter how far away they are. Your story will bring humanity to your words and make you a trustworthy spokesperson.

However, if you’re writing a speech for someone else to deliver, this can be more challenging. Just like you need to know your audience, you most certainly need to know and understand the person you’re writing for. Talk to them about what they want to say. And when you go through revisions, ask for their help to make the speech more personal.

 7. Stay on message

After spending so much time crafting the right message, don’t blow the opportunity with an ad lib that steals headlines.

Know the key messages your speech needs to convey, and focus your energy there. If a reporter asks you an off-topic question after your speech, answer it—and then pivot back to your central messages. Do your best to keep news coverage focused on your speech topic.

 8. Nothing is off the record

Remember Mitt Romney’s 47 percent comment in the run-up to the 2012 election? He was giving remarks at a fundraiser, and the leaked video led to damaging coverage. Use that as a lesson. Everyone, at all times, has a recording device in their pocket. When giving a speech, you should proceed as if you’re always being recorded—and the video or audio will be shared with others.

If an organizer of a speaking engagement claims the session is off the record, be forthcoming, but remain on guard. Don’t share anything you wouldn’t be comfortable appearing online attributed to you.

9. Keep it short—much shorter than this blog post

I know, this blog post is getting long. But have you seen that one Woodrow Wilson quote?

“If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”

Being concise is tough. Especially when you’re speaking on a subject you’re passionate about. When you’re writing, be a harsh editor and eliminate excess words that won’t contribute to the desired result—delivering a memorable speech that inspires action.

10. Maximize the content

As a public affairs practitioner who believes in working hard and working smart, this, to me, is the most important tip.

You only have 24 hours each day. You need to sleep. You need to eat. You need to see your family and friends once in a while. If you’re going to take several hours to write, revise and deliver a speech, make sure you maximize the reach of the content you’ve created.

Here are seven tactics to get your speech in front of your target audiences:

  • Send an email blast to supporters or customers encouraging them to attend the speaking engagement.
  • Create a Facebook event and invite followers to the speech.
  • Draft a quick media advisory and pitch the news media.
  • Shoot video and share it online—or broadcast it on Facebook Live, which gets strong user engagement.
  • Convert sections of your speech text into tweets and schedule them to publish after your speech starts.
  • Use Canva to turn your Call to Action or sound bite into a cool social media graphic.
  • Distribute video of the speech to news outlets, share it on social media and email it to supporters (and encourage them to share).

And that’s just a start—for example, if the speech is on an evergreen topic, share it multiple times on your social media channels.

 11. Revise and practice

Before you step up to the podium or screen, be sure you’re prepared to deliver your best speech. After you finish your first draft, revise it. Then, read it out loud. This will help you identify additional edits. Ask a trusted colleague to give it a read and suggest edits.

When you rehearse it—and I know this will feel really weird—stand in front of a mirror or record yourself with your phone. Body language, tone and pace all matter. So, practice your speech and assess your performance.

And since the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has relegated many speeches to remote delivery, here are two bonus tips for speeches in the Zoom era:

12. Talk to the camera

There was a time that speaking to the screen of your laptop was odd and a bit uncomfortable. Skype, Facetime and nearly a year’s worth of socially distanced meetings have changed that, but there are still plenty of mistakes you can make when interfacing with technology instead of a sea of people.

Before your scheduled remarks, try to get comfortable speaking into your camera the same way your speak to a live group, focusing on your online audience while executing crisp, coherent statements—albeit from the confines of your office or home workspace. Be aware of how you’re making eye contact with your on-screen attendees, as well as your appearance during delivery—which brings us to our next tip.

13. Set your stage

As we’ve now learned after months of speaking with colleagues on camera, what’s going on in their background can hamper communication.

Is there a spouse wandering into their shot? Are children banging on the door to their home office; is there a dog incessantly barking in the background; or is drab interior decoration on camera distracting from whatever vital points he or she is making?

Whatever the case, it’s important that the space you choose to host your online delivery be secure—and set-dressed appropriately. Make sure to assure quiet throughout your presentation, with all parties who could affect your live speech aware of your schedule. As for what’s in frame, arrange your shot’s background in either a simple, professional or complementary manner.

There’s a reason people like to speak on camera in front of not-so-randomly arranged bookshelves. Books and photos and regional memorabilia can reveal a little about the speaker, and that can help them connect with their television or online audience—and, ideally, complement the content of their message.     

Ready to get started?

If you already have a speaking engagement lined up, I always find inspiration in reading and watching the speeches of some of history’s great orators. And that makes sense when you’re striving to be inspirational. If your speech needs to be delivered in a different tone – for example, down-to-earth, solemn or funny – look for videos of people speaking at a similar event or on a similar topic. Analyze what they do and don’t do well.

If you’re just starting to look for speaking opportunities, connect with groups that often hold events. Chambers of commerce, Rotary Clubs, young professionals’ groups or industry associations. Identify how and why you would bring value to their members, and then pitch yourself as a speaker. And, if you need support with writing or preparing for a speech, developing your key messages or executing your advocacy campaign, connect with The Martin Group’s seasoned team of public affairs professionals who work with clients across Upstate New York and beyond.

John Mackowiak

Vice President | Public Relations

Are you looking for help with strategic writing or support with a public speaking engagement? I can help.

Are you looking for help with strategic writing or support with a public speaking engagement? I can help.

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