Professional speechwriters are freaks.
Scratch the surface of one and you’ll find somebody who dreams in metaphors, fantasizes about triads and foams at the mouth when they hear the word “keynote”.
I’m one of those freaks.
Just like other speechwriters, I can get caught up in the poetry, the style, the seductiveness of speeches.
It’s what we like to talk about when we huddle in dimly-lit pubs, cackling about examples of diacope or chiasmus.
We’re not people you’d introduce to your family.
We spend less time however, discussing how to structure a speech.
Let’s face it, structure isn’t very sexy.
Yet structure is perhaps the most important element of a speech.
You can dance, sing, or weep on stage, you can apply all the lagos, pathos, ethos you want, but if the audience can’t figure out how you’re taking them from A to Z, and what you actually want them to do about it, you’re just a dancin’ fool.
I’ve worked with everybody from non-profit groups, high-powered executives and lonely entrepreneurs. They all seem to make the same mistake when it comes to speech structure.
They go one of two ways.
They either have two minutes to explain their product or idea and the speech becomes a race to pack in the maximum amount of information possible.
Or they get a keynote slot and turn it into an hour-long dissertation of their company’s roots stretching back to the Big Bang.
The cold truth is that audiences remember little from any speech.
We may believe they have an infinite ability to remember our funding analysis and statistics, but they usually remember—at best—one or two items.
We must therefore present our information in a way that is not only easy to understand, but helps audiences retain it.
There are a number of speech structure formulas and authors make fortunes essentially selling the same one or two.
Let me save you some money.
Here’s one of the easiest and most effective.
I call it the 1-3-1 approach.
One point, three themes to support it, one conclusion.
Too simple? This is the speech structure I use for clients ranging from top government ministers, the UN, and private businesses.
You can use it for weddings, eulogies, break-up speeches to your girlfriend.
It’s a fool-proof formula and great if you want to become a speechwriter or are just beginning to write speeches.
Let’s see how it works.
Begin With Your Point
We begin with the most important part of the speech: the point. Not the opening (it should introduce the point), not the conclusion (it should summarize the point), the point itself.
The point is where we begin, what we build upon and what we want people to remember or do when they leave the room.
So, before strategies, themes or even specific words are discussed, write that point down.
In fact, get it into 140 characters.
Why? This is the Age of Twitter. The point will (hopefully) be retweeted anyway—help shape it.
Wait! How Do I Get A Point?
In a future article, I’ll discuss how to establish what the audience wants or needs from the speech. That will play a big part in understanding how to form our point.
For now, we need to keep in mind the audience is thinking three things about any speech:
- Why should I care about this?
- How does it affect me?
- What do I do next?
Your point should summarize those three things in one pithy, easy-to-remember sentence—in 140 characters if we’re awesome—that will be immortalized in stone forever and ever.
Think it can’t be done?
“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” (62 characters).
“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” (29 characters).
“I have a dream” (11 characters).
I never said it would be easy. Nor did I say the point always came at the beginning of the speech.
If we’re beginning to write speeches however, keep that main point at the beginning and get to the next part.
Next Is The Meat, Err…The Milk
Let’s turn to the middle part of the speech.
This is where many speeches go astray. Instead of getting from A to Z efficiently, speakers often seem like drivers who can’t remember where they’re going or how to get home.
Let’s imagine we’re dairy farmers tasked with writing a speech about why people should drink milk. In fact, that’s the point of our speech: people need to drink more milk.
But we can’t just say it, we need to convince. That’s the purpose of what I call the supporting themes, or the body of evidence that supports our main point. Think of them as three legs supporting a stool.
Determine a theme by asking the “how” or “why” of your point. For example, why should people drink more milk? Come up with the three most convincing reasons.
Let’s say our first reason or theme is “you need to drink more milk because it’s good for your health.” But don’t just state it, support it. Provide evidence.
Don’t Leave People Thirsty For Substance
Providing evidence does not mean giving a long boring list of statistics and numbers, but facts that stick, told in a way that make them stick.
Stories and anecdotes are excellent adhesives.
Repeating mission statements, visions and policies? Not so much.
Summarize your information in a concluding sentence for that first theme.
Perhaps the second theme is: “You need to drink more milk because it supports the economy.” Again, use the same process: state, support and summarize. Do the same for the third.
Make Sure They Ask For More
In the conclusion we’re wrapping things up. It should be a call to action. After all, we’re are speaking to the audience for a reason…get them to do something about it!
For our milk speech, perhaps we urge the audience to put down the wine list and instead order a glass of refreshing milk. Or maybe buy a cow.
Good structure boosts delivery. It also makes speakers appear more confident and trustworthy.
Let’s say we’re investors thinking of investing in a dairy.
Do we trust the company rep who is well organized, has a speech that follows a logical path and clearly states what they want?
Or do we trust the rep whose speech has 1,000 strategies and anecdotes, but no clear direction or goals?
Whether a speech is 30 seconds or 30 minutes, structure is vital. So, before giving your next speech or presentation, map out your 1-3-1 plan. Know your point. Support it well. Ask the audience to do something.
If you provide the right road map, they’ll follow.