A Book Review: 10 Steps to Writing a Vital Speech

Fletcher Dean is a speechwriter—he gets paid for writing speeches for other people, a profession that dates back about 2,500 years to Protagoras, who is noted as being the first to charge a fee for writing a speech for another person.

Protagoras’ bold act provoked scandal among the Greeks, who thought speakers should write their own speeches, an idea that still exists among many modern Americans, except those such as presidents and business leaders who actually have to give those speeches, and the few who are lucky enough to get to write them. I’m among the lucky, having written hundreds of speeches in my career.

Today, few people write their own speeches. The task of drafting memorable and moving presentations, as well those that put audiences to sleep, typically falls on speechwriters—sometimes experienced writers, but often writers with little training for the chore at hand.

Fortunately, for those struggling to make their leaders sound human, intelligent and likable, Dean is more than a speechwriter. He’s also the author of a highly informative and useful book on speechwriting, 10 Steps to Writing a Vital Speech: The Definitive Guide to Professional Speechwriting. This is a book I recommend and one that will sit on my shelf along with three other books on speechwriting, as well as books of John F. Kennedy’s and Winston Churchill’s speeches, a book of the world’s greatest speeches and one on speech criticism.

In a short 113 pages, Dean, who over the years has written many speeches for leading business people and politicians, covers his 10 steps thoroughly and provides information that will guide both the novice and the experienced speechwriter in preparing successful speeches.

Step 10: Helping Your Speaker Succeed.

I’ll begin with Dean’s last step because for anyone thinking of becoming a speechwriter just because he/she likes to write, it offers a lot to think about. First, being a speechwriter—if done correctly—is not just being a writer, Dean points out. You have to be a researcher, gathering information not only about the topic, but also about the audience. You have to be a counselor, telling “the speaker what’s required to be successful.” You have to be a speaking coach, a script master, fashion consultant, and event manager. Most of these roles have little or nothing to do with putting words on paper—which is what most of us think someone with the word writer in his/her title would do—but each plays an important task in making the speech successful.

Dean’s point here is important.

But I must admit there are plenty of people who write speeches who have never had the opportunity to perform any of these tasks besides writing. They are told by their boss to write a speech for one of the business’s leaders, told what the subject is, and given a few points that must be covered. They write it, hand it off, and can only guess how it is received by either the speaker or the audience. This happens to most people at the beginning of their speechwriting careers, and often to outside writers called in to write a speech because no one inside the company can do it.  But it’s far from the ideal way of being a speechwriter. The ideal way is what Dean correctly describes in the other nine steps in his book.

Step 1: Know Thy Audience.

As Dean makes clear, speechwriting is not just doing a little topic research and then typing away until you’ve said what you want to say about it. First, you need to find out as much about the audience as possible, including age; gender; racial, ethnic, cultural, and educational backgrounds; beliefs and attitudes in general and about the specific subject and the speaker. The purpose of knowing the audience, as Dean says, is to make the people who hear the speech “feel like it was written and delivered just for them.”

Step 2: Aim First, Then Shoot—Targeting Your Words.

“When it comes to writing effective speeches, the message is paramount,” Dean says. “And yet, so few writers actually go through a formal process of identifying not only what the message is, but what they want the message to do.” He says that knowing the audience is key to targeting the message because speakers can generally achieve only five levels of communications possibilities with their audiences: inform, create understanding, reinforce values, change attitudes, or elicit action. And what they can achieve depends on the audience.

Step 3: What Are You Going to Say? Finding the Right Material.

“The object during this phase is not to collect the most material,” Dean says. “Instead, you should focus on gathering the most useful material in the most efficient manner.” He provides a few helpful suggestions for doing so.

Step 4: Tell Me a Story.

“People react only so much to data and logic,” Dean says. “What really influences them is when they get information that hits them where they think and where they feel. And you can only do that with stories.” He lists some of the types of stories that work in speeches, where to find stories, how to use them, and what is for me the key to this step: the benefits of storytelling in your speeches.

Step 5: To Show or Tell: When to Use PowerPoint.

Step 9: Now Picture This: The Right Way to Use PowerPoint.

Together, these two steps help you decide whether, when, and how to use a slide presentation during the speech. Many speeches—in fact, I’d say most of them—work best without a slide presentation, especially if you are writing for a senior leader. Seldom, for example, will you see President Obama or other politicians use PowerPoint.

Step 6: Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign: How to Lead Your Audience.

In another of the key steps for me, Dean talks about the need for structuring your speech. Between the speaker and the audience are often lots of distractions (he calls them “noise”). Among these distractions are talking and shuffling audience members, ringing and buzzing cell phones, cultural and demographic differences between the audience and the speaker. This noise makes it difficult for the listener to really understand the message. One of the most important ways to reduce the noise “is how you structure the speech,” Dean says. “Structure is immensely important because it gives your talk a framework that allows the audience to follow along.” He gives several examples of structure that should help most speechwriters.

Step 7: More Structure and (finally!) Words.

Dean discusses the familiar speech structure: opening, body and closing, as well as a seemingly more complicated, but highly effective, structure known as Monroe’s Motivations Sequence. And he talks about writing for the ear, as a speechwriter should do, rather than writing for the eye. He makes this point: “Simple words, simple phrases and simple sentences rule the day when writing for the ear.”

Step 8: Say It Simple, But Say it With Style.

Dean emphasizes in this step that no one really wants to hear a speech. “People want direction. They need motivation and inspiration. They often beg for information.” But, he says, they don’t want to sit and listen to the speech you’ve written. That’s why it’s your duty to make that speech as “warm, personal, clear and engaging” as possible. The key to doing this is editing, he says. He recommends that the writer go through a hard copy of the speech “to catch all the language and phrasing that gets in the way of the message,” to simplify the speech wherever possible, and to make the language exciting and fresh. He provides suggestions for doing this.

If you want to become a speechwriter or want to be a better speechwriter, you’ll benefit from reading Fletcher Dean’s 10 Steps to Writing a Vital Speech: The Definitive Guide to Professional Speechwriting. 

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