writing a speech

Writing a Speech – Forget Good Grammar

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.

writing a speech

Philip Hammond made the Chancellor’s annual Mansion House speech last week and there were a lot of very short sentences.

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.

You can find Philip Hammond’s speech here.

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.

Here is Mark Carney’s speech.

Writing a Speech: Use the dash

writing a speech

Mark Carney’s script for this year’s Mansion House dinner made liberal use of dashes.

The Bank of England Governor has a different style with longer sentences. But his speech writer makes liberal use of dashes.

As here:

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.

 

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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2 replies
  1. Sivaram says:

    Very useful tips. We see clearly from the response of audience whether it is reaching them. Their body language says it all. More that what I want to say, I need to focus on what they will carry back. Flowery language, demonstration of power of vocabulary can often be disastrous. Thank you. Sivaram

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  2. David Nelson says:

    Regarding written speeches. Many years at Party conferences revealed that only the stars get autocue. Junior ministers and shadow ministers have to read! I’ve seen speeches printed with double and sometimes triple line spacing.This helps the individual keep their place, but does result in too much paper on the podium/lectern – and a grim anticipation among the audience, who equate size of paper pile with length of speech. Some walk out at that moment! (Notably, speeches for press distribution are always produced double spaced by govt press offices). Also adjust your delivery style for the venue: e.g. Methodist Central Hall Westminster speakers should understand that sound reaches the back of the floor twice: once directly from the stage or loudspeakers, then about half a second later after it has rolled up into the dome and back down – oh and it hits the circle audience on the way down. So…Slow…Down. And keep the sentences short. Leave sufficient gaps between them. To test a venue’s audio profile, go on stage when its empty. Place one listener at the back of the stalls, one at the back of the circle. Clap. Count one. Clap again. Ask your 2 listeners if they clearly heard 2 claps, and adjust delivery accordingly.

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