I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this lament: I have a speech/presentation/tribute /introduction/thank you/eulogy/pitch/essay/personal statement) to write, and I JUST DON’T KNOW WHERE TO START!
We’re all in the same boat. Remember Newton’s first law? You’re going to stay “at rest” or “in motion” unless acted upon by an external force. So to kick start the process, and get yourself in motion rather than stagnating at rest, I suggest interviewing yourself.
If you had the luxury of hiring a speechwriter to write this piece for you, what would the professional ask you?
First, some logistics; the where, when and who. They’re important, because they will affect how you craft what you’re going to say.
- What’s the venue? Where will this presentation be delivered? If you are speaking, is it in a well-lit conference room or hall with a sound system, or are you addressing a crowd outdoors at a picnic with the sun in your eyes? Good to keep in mind in deciding how simple or complex your sentences should be.
- If your project is being composed and written rather than delivered, is it being read by one person (who has several hundred similar pieces to evaluate in a short time frame) by a board, or is it being published and subsequently available to the public? In other words, does it need to be formal or more casual, and do you need to put all your effort into making it stand out, or are you, for this effort, the only game in town?
- Who is the audience? What’s the size (hundreds of people who don’t know you, a couple of dozen you know intimately, or a mix of both?) What’s the demographic? (mostly business, mostly social, mostly family, mostly young, mostly old, or again, a mix of all of these.) Determining this will affect the style of your final product.
- Where do you fall in the line-up of speakers/presenters? Are you the one and only… the star of the show? (if so, who are you representing?) Are you the last speaker? (if so, are you expected to be the one who sums up, draws conclusions, and pulls disparate threads together?) Or are you the first speaker? (are you expected to give an introduction to or preview of the program to come? ) Are you somewhere in the middle of the roster? (if so, how to distinguish your message from the others on the program?)
Now, for the content; the what and the why.
- What’s your point? Many times, particularly in a speech designed for a social setting, speakers have trouble formulating an effective toast or tribute because they forget this essential question. You may be speaking about a best friend, family member, or a product, but you should have in mind one major point. I often ask people, “When you walk away from the podium, what do you want people to remember the most?” Your sister’s generous nature? Your father’s kindness? Your product’s cost-effectiveness? Make sure you state your point, and make sure you repeat it.
- Why does it matter? Your point matters to you. Your job is to convince your audience it matters to them too. If you’ve done that, you’ve accomplished your mission, OR you’ve accomplished the mission of the person or organization that asked you to speak (and represent them!)
- How can you best illustrate your main point or theme? Anecdotes, not statistics, are what engage your audience. They make the subject relatable.
- If you’re speaking about a person, try getting at the heart of the matter by asking yourself what you’d most miss if this person wasn’t in your life, or conversely, what you consider his or her greatest attribute. If you’re speaking about a product, a program, or an institution, ask why it will save time, money, energy or be good for the environment. That’s what your audience will want to know.
- Where do you want to end up? Stephen Covey, of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People fame, reminded us to always “Begin with the end in mind.” If you are lauding an individual who just donated a million dollars to a home for troubled teens, begin by telling that person’s story. How did they get there? What inspired them? Did they start out as one of those teens they’re now trying to help? There’s usually a compelling personal narrative that drives such instincts, and mining it will push your audience’s emotional and intellectual buttons.
Do you have standard questions you ask yourself when you are about to tackle a communication project? If not, should you be drawing some up for yourself? And are you willing to share them with us?