Five Lifesavers for Speech Writing

Scripting is one way an aspiring writer can try his hand at live stage. Unlike copywriting , creative writing, or journalism, here the writer gets to act. Speech writing usually means you’re writing for someone else, and this is sometimes the hardest thing to remember. It’s not your voice speaking; it’s theirs. So it shouldn’t sound like you, it should sound like them.  What does that mean for word choice?

  1. Lose your own favorite phrases and drop your trademark style. If possible, listen to past tapes of the speaker. Practice their mannerisms, their timing, be aware of when they pause for audience reaction.  Take a tip from celebrity impersonators.  Often it’s not how much they match the celebrity in physical appearance that is convincing, but rather, the inflections, expressions, attire, and stance they take that conjures up the likeness.

  2. Know what bugs the speaker. I once scripted the dynamic CEO of a major nonprofit. She could capture the audience in a manner of minutes, so I came out of the gate galloping. No subdued, “Welcome to our event.” It was more like “Good morning everyone.  How the heck are you today? I better hear you’re happy because we don’t want any down-in-the-mouthers in this room.” The audience became immediately engaged. This same person didn’t like the phrase “Because of” as in “Because of your great work, we are presenting…” so I went out of my way to say, “Thanks to your great work,” or “Due to your great work,” or “Without you’re great work we couldn’t have achieved…”

  3. Know the audience. If you’re talking to an automotive crowd, use a few phrases that relate:  “drive results,”  “accelerate sales,”  “rev up for the Fourth Quarter.”  If your audience is assembled from the medical field, opt for “robust performance,” “healthy attendance,” and “corporate well-being.” Talking to the financial crowd? You’ll probably want “return on investment,” “assets,” and “bottom line.”  But don’t overdo it; make it subtle and sprinkle the phrases far and wide.

  4. Give the speaker some help;  don’t trip them up. If there’s a name, location, or technical term, spell it out phonetically.  “Liam Donaghue” should be written out but next to it, put (PRON: shawn donna-hue).  “La Jolla” might be cued as (PRON: La Hoy-a).  [“PRON” stands for “Pronounced.”]  If the speaker has a lisp, avoid phrases that accentuate it. Rather than “Let’s look at this more closely” turn it into, “Now is a great time to look at the case at hand.” Keep the words sharp, not soft. If scripting for audio, remember that even the best narrator can mess up “What makes New York unique?” or “For those of you who are frequent readers…”  Forfeit the word (and your ego) and go with, “What makes New York special?” or “For those of you who read a lot…” That way, everyone wins.

  5. Keep it short. Overestimate the time it takes to pronounce the words. A phone number, for example, while appearing short on the page actually takes a while to articulate:  “one eight hundred, two three four, five six seven eight.”  Get a clock or watch with a second hand and use it to read radio, TV, or telemarketing scripts out loud. You’ll quickly learn to count syllables and know when to change “caterpillar” to “bug.”