Putting words into someone else’s mouth


There you are, sitting at your desk, engrossed in updating your social media profile, when your CEO walks up to you and asks you to write him – or her – a speech.

“They’re only speaking for 10 minutes,” you think as you start tapping out a few lines. “This won’t be hard.”

Wrong. The average person speaks at a rate of about 150-160 words a minute. This slows to 120 words a minute for a non-native speaker. That means a 10-minute speech is a whopping 1,200 to 1,600 words. Words that have to keep an audience engrossed in what you’re saying (well, what your CEO is saying) for the entire time. Suddenly 10 minutes seems very, very long, considering most people don’t even watch a YouTube video for more than two or three minutes.

Tune listeners in, not out
The biggest mistake speechwriters make is to write for a reader, rather than a listener.

Listeners have a short attention span. They can only absorb a certain amount of information. They bore easily and switch off. And, unlike a reader, they can’t go back to the start of a sentence when they lose the gist.

Writing for a reader also makes a speech harder to deliver. Long sentences offer few opportunities for the speaker to catch their breath. The complexity confuses listeners. And unlike easy-flowing conversational language, written language, when spoken out loud, tends to sound formal and stilted.

So a speech requires a totally different writing approach. It needs words we use in everyday conversation, and language shortcuts such as ‘it’s’ rather than ‘it is’. Speak to the audience and draw them in with words like ‘you’, ‘me’, ‘our’.

Keep it simple
Don’t lose the audience in complicated ideas or convoluted sentences. Keep it simple. Use language everyone understands. Avoid acronyms and jargon.

Stick to just one or two messages and reinforce them throughout the speech. Keep returning to them so that everyone hears the message at least once during the speech, even if their attention strays.

Don’t rely on powerpoint. If you must use slides, let them enhance your words, not undermine them. We’ve all done it as listeners ourselves: read the words on the screen and then stopped listening because we know what the speaker is going to say.

Say it out loud
Most importantly, before you present the speech to your CEO, READ IT OUT LOUD. Get a feel for the flow. What does it sound like when you speak it? Which sentences are too long? Where do you need to draw a breath? Which words should be emphasised? Can you phrase it more simply – is this how you would tell it to a friend?

And now, ladies and gentlemen, you’re ready to write that speech.

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