We’ve all heard that speaker that was so boring or confusing that our brains have shut off before they’ve even finished their introductory paragraph. Think about it. You probably won’t remember anything they talked about. But you will remember that they seemed awkward or weird or just plain confusing. While they were speaking, you check Instagram and liked a photo of your friend’s too perfect-looking cake and your cousin’s chubby toddler.
We’ve all skimmed a character’s supposed-to-be moving-and-dramatic speech to his village to rise up and take back their town from the evil invaders. It was long and seemed unimportant, so we skipped ahead to the action. Some of us have probably even written that not-so-great speech for our favourite character.
Why do some speeches suck?
Probably because the speaker did some of these eight things.
Speechwriting is an art. But it’s not an unattainable one. Anyone can write a compelling, memorable speech with a little practice.
When you write speeches, avoid these pitfalls.
Began the speech by thanking people
“Hello, thank you so much for inviting me to speak to you today. I also want to thank the honourable Dr. So-and-so for coming. And thank you, Mr. So-and-so for accompanying your wife today. It means so much to have such a considerable audience….”
Nobody came to hear you list a bunch of dignitaries’ names out. There is no surer way to lose your audiences attention than by giving a long-winded preface. Someone probably introduced you. Leave the prefaces and introductions to them.
Get right into your talk with a good hook, just like in a book or short story or feature article. Grab your audience’s attention with a joke, an anecdote, a fact or a question related to your topic. Dive right in.
Made the speech too complex for ears
When you’re used to writing for the eyes you forget how to write for the ears. Listening is different from reading. It takes longer to absorb the information and glean it’s meaning. And when you’re listening, you can’t go back and reread a sentence for clarification–you’ve only got one chance to grasp it.
Keep things simple. Have 2 to 3 takeaways for your audience to remember (fewer if your talk is short). Before you start writing the speech, sum up your theme in 15 to 20 words. Use classic story structure–beginning, middle, end. Use concrete examples to back up every statement, but use only one example per point.
Didn’t check in with their audience
You’re not speaking in a vacuum. Give your audience pauses and breaths to process what you’re saying. Plan regular breaks to see if they understand and are following. If they aren’t engaged, mix things up and try something else.
Talked for too long
If you’re given a time limit of 20 minutes to talk, plan for 15. If you don’t have a time limit, keep it short anyway. If your character is giving a speech, keep it as short as possible. Think of your 2 to 3 takeaways and cut all the other unrelated or tangentially related fluff. Listening is tiring. Give your audience a break and only speak as long as you absolutely need to to get your idea across.
Cared only about themself
I get it. You have an idea or a message that needs to be told. But your speech isn’t about you or your needs. It’s never about what the speaker wants or needs. It’s about your audience. It’s about what they want and need.
Be kind to your audience. Tell them, at the beginning of your speech, where you’re going to take them and define key terms. “There are eight pitfalls to speeches that make them boring and unmemorable. A bad speech is one from which the audience leaves having no memory of the message the speaker hoped to communicate.”
Kept it cold
Think about the most famous speeches: “I have a dream!” by Martin Luther King Jr., “The Gettysburg Address“ by Abraham Lincoln. These speeches are full of feeling. They are full of humanity. They have a unifying theme throughout the speech. They make the listeners care, think, feel, and respond. That is your goal.
Used stats instead of stories
What is easy to remember? A list of numbers or statistics or a story? There’s a reason why so much of history is passed down through oral traditions and stories.We feel them. We experience them. We remember them.
Didn’t dress it up
Don’t just talk. Speak! Use rhetorical questions. Use imagery in similes, metaphors, analogies. Use devices like chiasmus, antimetabole, diacope, anaphora, axioms. (Read the links on each of those words to learn about what they mean. It’s okay, I had to google them too. Once you’ve read the definitions and examples, go include some of these in your next speech.)
Ended without tying everything together
Weak endings are even worse than weak beginnings. Your audience should remember your close.
Recap your biggest takeaway. Tie everything in your speech together to it. Share a success story that illustrates it. Make a call to action. Give you audience something to do with what you’ve just told them.
If you follow my speech writing instructions, you’ll avoid these pitfalls and your speech will start well, end well, and stick in your audience’s mind for quite some time.