Writing a speech? There are some tips to be gleaned by reading two high profile speeches delivered late last week. Both the Chancellor, Philip Hammond and the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney gave their annual Mansion House speech to city grandees. Here I am not going to comment on the substance of the speeches – you can see mainstream coverage here and here – but instead I am pulling out a couple of tips for writing a speech or – importantly – any script.
I am prompted to do this because both the Treasury and the Bank of England publish important speeches, so it is simple to read them online, making them a useful resource.
Remember the bulk of each of these speeches will have been written by professional speech writers. (This is probably not their job title but much of the substance of the speech will have been provided by someone other than the person delivering it. It is usual for early drafts to be discussed and commented on and the final draft tweaked by the deliverer.)
The crucial thing to understand, when writing something that will be read aloud, is that you need to use ‘spoken English’ not ‘written English’. You can usefully forget much of what you were taught in school about good sentence structure and paragraphs.
Short sentences or even fragments can be effective
The key thing that stands out for me – reading rather than hearing the Chancellor’s speech – is the, often, very short sentences.
The good news is that we build on strong foundations.
Britain’s economy is fundamentally sound.
Unemployment is at a 40-year low, and employment is at a record high.
Real wages are, at last, beginning to rise.
Last year investment spending grew at the fastest rate in the G7.
And goods exports grew by over 7%.
But there is no room for any complacency.
The writer sensibly does not keep up this staccato style all the way through but instead mixes it in with longer more complicated sentences. Listeners would get bored if the pattern is repeated too much but, used intermittently, it has the benefit of being very clear, and very easy to deliver.
Secondly, some of Hammond’s short sentences are technically not sentences at all. Take this snippet.
But, (the Prime Minister) also confirmed we will stick to our fiscal rules.
And will continue to reduce debt.
So, as the Prime Minister said, taxpayers will have to contribute a bit more, in a fair and balanced way, to support the NHS we all use.
While delivering on our fiscal commitments
If you were an English teacher you would want to put red marks all over this, introduce some commas or colons and correct those capital letters. But this is not a document, it is a script and the rules are different.
Writing a Speech: Use the dash
The Bank of England Governor has a different style with longer sentences. But his speech writer makes liberal use of dashes.
That includes hard infrastructure – from liquidity facilities to payments architecture – and soft infrastructure – from the rule of law to up-to-date codes of conduct and effective regulatory frameworks.
I remember an early news editor at Radio Norfolk complaining about my use of dashes in a news story I had written that she had to read on air. She had a long history as a print journalist and railed against the youngsters who took a relaxed view of punctuation. I still think I was right. Dashes are more useful to the performer than commas.
At The Media Coach, we run special training courses for some clients who are using scripts and even autocue to produce videos for the web. Nearly always, a key reason why these brave people are not sounding as good as they would like, is that the script they are working with is not a script at all – but something that reads like an internal document. It’s the wrong style.
Writing a Speech: Say it aloud first
So how do you work out how to write a script?
Well, a good place to start is: say it aloud first. To see this in action watch Gary Oldman’s depiction of Churchill in last year’s film, The Darkest Hour. Churchill wrote his own speeches. But actually, as we see in the film, he didn’t write: he famously dictated speeches to his secretary Elizabeth Layton. These days we don’t have someone taking dictation but you can still speak first and then write down what you say.
And of course to check it works you need to read it aloud…not in your head.
Writing a Speech: 6 top tips
To summarise here are my 6 top tips
1. As with all professional communication be clear on your audience and your objective.
2. Write in plain English and avoid jargon, even for specialist audiences.
3. Write in short sentences. Don’t be afraid to use some very short sentences.
4. Use more paragraphs. Break up your prose, usually just 2 or 3 sentences per paragraph but one sentence or fragment is fine.
5. If you (or the person delivering the script) are reading from paper rather than autocue, set wide margins: give the eye less distance to travel across the page. The reader is less likely to lose their place.
6. Say it first, then write it, then read it aloud to check it works.
If you want to read other tips from me on speech writing, I last looked at this in a blog a couple of years ago and you can read that here.