Hari Patience-Davies considers the pros and cons of scripted prose when it come to speechwriting.
How do you write your speeches? When it’s your turn to present a status update, pitch to a client or explain to your boss why you deserve that promotion, do you write every word out in full or keep things a little looser?
I know a lot of people don’t really plan what they’re going to say in a status update – after all that’s not a *real* speech, it’s just an update. But taking the time to plan our words every time we have to take the stage – be it on a Zoom call, in a meeting room or at a 121 in a coffee shop, is the best way to ensure you don’t forget anything and are able to make all the points you want to.
Knowing what you want to achieve is key – but so is knowing what you’re going to say.
I’m often asked whether it’s better to write out a speech in full and memorise it, or do a less ordered speech plan using bullet points or post-it notes, and the truth of it is that it’s really up to you. Everyone is different, some people will present well when delivering a speech they’ve planned every single word of, while others will be stronger presenters when they have the flexibility to choose their exact words as they say them.
I’m one of the latter – memorisation scares me. I’m constantly worried that I’ll forget a word, and that I’ll be so intent on getting the words exactly right that forgetting one tiny one will cause me to freeze and panic. It’s probably not a realistic fear anymore – I know now how to cope with losing my place or my mind going blank on stage but I still avoid planning my speeches and presentations out word for word. Just in case.
So instead of writing out speeches and presentations in prose, I plan out the topics I want to talk about then arrange them as a list. I work out how long I roughly want to speak about each one and add the timings to the list, then I rearrange as necessary to make it work. As a former project manager I do a lot of this in an excel spreadsheet.
I then practice what I want to say about each topic individually and make any timing adjustments necessary. As I practice the specific words I use change and evolve – often I’ll find a few nice phrases that I’ll repeat every time I practice that bit, but it’s rare I will use the exact same words twice.
I like working this way because it gives me an incredible amount of flexibility when speaking. I know that ideally I want to talk about topic X for 3 minutes, but if I want to (or need to fill the time) I can generally easily adapt that to a 5 minute duration, or compress it down to about 90 seconds. This means that when I arrive to give my speech and the organiser says something like “I know we told you it would be 25 minutes but we’re running late so you’ve only actually got 10,” I can adapt the length of my speech to fit.
This approach doesn’t work for everyone, but it does for me.
I recently wrote a blog about author and speaker Glennon Doyle, and how she plans all of her speeches out word for word, then records them to help her memorise them, and perform them as if it’s not been planned at all. Some people can do that, but you do have to put the hours of practice in, because in my experience, when someone has written a speech and not practiced it enough, it always comes across like a speech being read, even if it’s memorised.
You need a certain amount of acting talent (or an awful lot of practice) to make a speech sound conversational. It can be done – people do it all the time, most TED talks are planned out word for word in advance.
So in this case there isn’t an obvious piece of best practice advice to offer. If you want to comfort of planning every word in advance, do so, but make sure to plan ahead so that if you do need to reduce the length of the speech you know which paragraphs you can cut on the fly.
If you prefer to keep things flexible then plan your speech around the topics and key points you want to cover – but make sure you are clear on which points support which topic, don’t let yourself deviate from the points you want to make just because you haven’t specified every word in advance.
Regardless of which planning approach you take, remember that practise is key – there’s little value in planning or writing an amazing speech if you don’t put the time in to practise the delivery. Practise in this case doesn’t just mean perfect, it means confident, and a confident delivery is as important as good content.
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