How to Work with a Speechwriter
Updated: Jun 28, 2022
If you spend any time with Toastmasters International, you’ll learn very quickly that one of the guiding principles is not to read or memorize a speech. Instead, Toastmasters recommends developing a flow and a set of points to guide your speech and then practicing until you are comfortable delivering it.
Go to any conference of senior leaders, though, and you’ll see people delivering speeches from an autocue. Watch any accomplished politician speaking and you’ll see their same. Yet many speakers fear that using a teleprompter will somehow make them look less prepared, less capable. That’s not necessarily true, but not necessarily false either. Most of the greatest speeches in history were delivered from written remarks. Which is right for you?
A good speech is about two things - the words and the delivery. It is the words that articulate the idea. It is the delivery that inspires the audience. A great speech requires both. Yes, it is possible to inspire an audience without strong rhetorical skills - a certain former president of the United States springs to mind. However, if the message you are trying to deliver is something more intellectually coherent than a T-shirt slogan, you will need to work with a speechwriter and you will need to prepare.
Three tips for working with a speechwriter
Hold a briefing meeting: A good speechwriter can often articulate your ideas better than you can. That’s their job. But the ideas are still yours, not the writer’s. If you’re using a speechwriter, especially someone you’ve not worked with before, be prepared to spend time with them to explain what it is that you want to communicate. This time allows the writer to get as much detail as possible and also to pick up on your preferred phrases and patterns of speech. This helps ensure that the finished speech is authentically ‘you’.
Devote time to review: A first draft will rarely be perfect. Make time to review the drafts with your writer to highlight the parts that work for you and the parts that don’t. This exercise better tempers the speech to your own tone of voice and, critically, gives you time to build familiarity with the flow. It also creates opportunities to identify new ways of phrasing thoughts and ideas that you feel more comfortable with.
Work with someone you trust: Over time, a good speechwriter will learn how to craft a piece of writing for you that matches your tone of voice, characteristic expressions and favorite anecdotes. And the more you work with a writer, the more you need to share what’s on your mind - difficult decisions, personal stories, insecurities. Having someone you trust in that role is essential, but trust takes time. You may use several different writers before you find someone that you’re comfortable with.
Three tips for preparing the speech
Rehearse in parts: It‘s very obvious when someone working from a teleprompter is reading the speech for the first time. Delivery is slow, wooden. The speaker will trip over unfamiliar phrases. In short, the speaker looks less prepared and less capable. Rehearsing the speech is critical. But you don’t have to do it all at once or even on a stage. Take advantage of quiet times to go over certain passages in your head to get a sense of how you would deliver them. Focus on the sections that articulate your most important messages and make sure you have the rhythm and cadence right.
Practice with delivery in mind: It’s important to read through the full speech, but make your reading an active process. Read as though you are delivering before an audience. Think about where you will be on the stage, how you will accentuate a key point, where you will pause. If you find certain passages difficult to deliver then work with your speechwriter to refine them. The written script is the scaffolding on which the speech is built - the design and structure of the scaffolding is important, but more important is the structure to which it gives shape.
Get feedback: Deliver the speech, in whole or in part, to someone whose opinion you value and upon whom you can rely to give honest feedback. Very often in spoken communication, what we believe we said is not necessarily what the audience receives - as a speaker we know exactly what we mean but as an audience the message is going through all our internal filters before it reaches our conscious mind. That gives a lot of room for misinterpretation. Having a non-critical pair of ears receive and interpret your message can make a huge difference to the finished product.
Ultimately, the decision to go with written comments or simple talking points comes down to personal preference and confidence in front of an audience.
That said, the more important the speech, the more critical it is to have total control of your message so that while you are on stage you can focus on delivering with energy and passion. Under those circumstances, having a written speech that is authentically your voice can be exactly the platform you need to shine. The speech draft itself is just a tool - what differentiates the craftsman from the apprentice is the way they use the tools they have to get the results they want.