Six things professional speech writers know

Six things professional speech writers know and the rest of us don’t

Six things professional speech writers know and the rest of us don’t – is a post prompted by the uproar surrounding passages of Melania Trump’s speech to the opening night of the Republican National Convention.

Many people it seems, thought chunks of the speech had been lifted almost word for word from one delivered by Michelle Obama in 2008.

Six things professional speech writers know

Donald and Melania Trump

The resulting coverage has thrown light on some on the rarely seen backstage manoeuvrings behind political jamborees.

It was also a surprise reminder that plagiarism in speech writing is frowned upon (but rarely illegal).

Six things professional speech writers know: plagiarism is easily done

A trawl of the cuttings around this particular incident highlighted the fact that two speechwriters, Matthew Scully and John McConnell, submitted an early draft of the speech to the campaign a month before the convention. This is evidence of impressive planning. The fact that they heard nothing back for a long time and that another writer, Meredith McIver, worked on the speech with the want-to-be first lady is evidence of the competitive jockeying for influence between the advisers of those who may be on their way to the top.

McIver says that she wanted to inspire Melania Trump, and this included reading her passages from Michelle Obama’s speech in 2008. McIver took responsibility for the mistake and offered to resign. An offer that was not accepted. It is doubtful whether she actually wrote the offending passages or did more than provide them as an example to the third Mrs. Trump.

We also learnt from the coverage of this story, that the chances of a 16-word match in a speech being just a coincidence are less than one in a trillion – this according to a website called Turniton.com. Turniton.com is a subscription service that helps students with revision and checks their work for (presumably accidental) plagiarism. Who knew? In the age of the internet, plagiarism is a big issue in academia and is regularly checked for. Professional speechwriters apparently use this or similar software to ensure they have not inadvertently repeated something they have heard before.

Here are six other things that professional speechwriters know that the rest of us are not aware of.

Six things professional speech writers know: it’s an emotional journey

Six things professional speech writers know: write as you speak

  • Write as you speak, not in written English. This is a classic mistake we see at The Media Coach all the time. Written English has a different style to spoken English, if you are writing a speech it must be written to speak aloud. So don’t write: ‘It is an exceptionally beautiful and joyous day’ but instead ‘It’s a really lovely, happy day’. ‘It is’ becomes ‘it’s’ and ‘beautiful and joyous’ becomes the simpler ‘lovely and happy’. Keep sentences short and write in pauses so the speaker gives the words of the script time to land. If you are not sure, try reading aloud what you have written, and see if it sounds natural.

Six things professional speech writers know: tricolons rock

  • Tricolons are one of the most effective and widely used rhetoric devices. The technical definition of a tricolon is: a rhetorical term for a series of three parallel words, phrases or clauses. For example “I came, I saw, I conquered”. “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I learn” Here is a piece about President Obama’s use of tricolons.

Six things professional speech writers know: repetition is good

  • Repetition in all its forms is very useful in speech writing. It will often give rhythm to a speech as well as drum home the most important points. The obvious example here is Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. He uses the word ‘dream’ 11 times in nine paragraphs of the speech. Donald Trump has a particularly repetitive style of speech as noted in this blog.
Six things professional speech writers know

Martin Luther King used repetition successfully in his ‘I have a dream’ speech

Six things professional speech writers know: end with a bang

  • End with a bang. This may be a call to action for example, as overly optimistic Liberal leader David Steel did in 1981 when he said:  “Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government”. Or it may be a benediction “May the force be with you” or “God bless America”. It can be the title of your talk or it can be a grand theme that provokes a big idea as in Winston Churchill’s address to the nation in the face of the threat of invasion.“Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that if the British Commonwealth and Empire lasts for thousands of years, men will say: ‘This was their finest hour.”

Six things professional speech writers know: narrow columns

  • And finally, print your speech in large type and with narrow columns. This is much easier to read aloud than trying to read across the width of a page. Television scripts are laid out on one side of the page only, originally for this reason. The example below uses block capitals but the normal use of upper- and lower case is easier to read.
  • Six things professional speech writers know

    Television scripts are laid out on one side of the page only to make them easier to read

    Photo Credits: All photos are used under Creative Comms licences.

Lindsay Williams

About Lindsay Williams

Prior to founding her communications training agency, The Media Coach, Lindsay Williams worked as a journalist from 1983. She specialised in financial and business journalism since 1991. After thirteen years in the BBC with local radio, regional television, Radio 4 and Radio 5 Live, she moved to Reuters Financial Television as Deputy Programme Editor. Working freelance from 1998, she was contracted in a variety of roles including as an executive producer for Bloomberg television delivering half hour profiles of Chief Executives, as a producer with Sky Business Unit and at CNBC. She has had articles published in Sunday Business, The Business, The Times and in specialist magazines such as Companies & Finance and Impact. For the majority of her journalism career she specialised in reporting business and finance. Lindsay Williams hosts a range of bespoke communication skills courses for The Media Coach which include Media Training, Presentation Training, Crisis Media Training and Message Building.

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