By Joann Collins
Most non-profits don’t have the budget for a professional speechwriter or a corporate speaking coach. But what tactics can you take from those professionals to use as you are drafting speeches for your executives, representatives and participants?
Most events begin with a welcome or opening ceremony of some kind and end with a thank you or closing ceremony. How can you turn those moments into more than just a litany of names and sponsors and statistics?
Build a dramatic narrative. An event is not just an activity, it’s an experience. It’s a story. Like any story, you need a beginning, middle and end — a build-up, climax and denouement. Both the event as a whole, and any speeches or ceremonies within that event, need that type of structure to craft the audience’s emotional experience. Not to manipulate them, but to draw out an honest, authentic experience that evokes real feelings. Take your audience on a journey, using the evergreen traditional structure of the hero’s journey — from the call-to-action to the adventure to the transformation and the return. That journey may encompass the entire event from beginning to end, or it could all be contained within one speech or presentation.
The depth is in the details. James Joyce said, “In the particular is contained the universal.” What did he mean by that? He meant that stories should be particular to one person’s experience — describing the unique details of a place, of a person, of a moment. And by telling that personal perspective, in the minutiae of everyday lives, you show the universal truths of humanity. That may sound a bit grand, but what it basically means is this: The more specific the tiny details, the more it will resonate with the audience as universal and personal to them, regardless of their background or experience. So rather than talking about the 100 people who die from gun violence every day in America, tell the story of one person — the details of their life and death and the people who loved them — to make your message resonate.
Know your speaker. What sounds right coming out of one person’s mouth could sound awkward and stilted coming from someone else. Don’t write the exact same speech for two different people. Before you begin writing, get to know your speaker and their voice. Can they deliver a joke? Or do they project gravitas? Are they most comfortable reading off a script line-by-line, or are they best when ad libbing a little?
Rehearse. Rehearse. Rehearse. Run through a draft of the speech with the speaker several times until they feel comfortable enough to make it their own. As they deliver the speech, follow along in the script word by word, and note where the speaker naturally changes the language to what they feel more comfortable with. Then write those changes into the script itself so when the speaker looks down at the page, they see their own words reflected back at them and can really relax into the speech. You can allow for moments of ad lib, but always have a fully drafted script as a back-up, in case the speaker freezes in the moment or needs something to fall back on.
Do a run through with people in the room standing in for the audience. Make a note of where laughs or applause naturally come up, and write those moments into the scripts as pauses. Also write direction for delivery into the script. Don’t overwhelm the speaker with too much direction, but adding simple notes like “slow down” “quiet” or “get louder” can help shape the experience so that it’s more than just a speech, it’s telling a story. Make sure the delivery notes and pauses are in a different color or format so they don’t get confused with the speech text. You certainly don’t want your speaker saying “Pause for laughter” by accident.
Keep it fresh. If you’re lucky, you will have participants coming back to your event year after year. While repeating certain elements from year to year can build a tradition and sense of familiar comfort, you don’t want the entire speech to be the same. Change key moments (if not the whole speech) from year to year — or from event to event — both to keep it fresh for the audience and also to prevent the speaker from getting so comfortable with the speech that they fail to inject it with emotion.
Good luck! Whether you’re writing a keynote for a fundraising dinner, a closing ceremony for a multi-day athletic event, or opening remarks for a 5K, keeping these tips in mind can help your speeches come off like a professional.
A graduate of Northwestern University and the University of Southern California, Joann Buckley Collins has been writing and developing communication strategies for nonprofits since 1998. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two sons, who think that “mom writes emails all day.” When not writing emails, Joann is hiking, playing tennis, reading and cooking. You can find Joann on LinkedIn.