Five tips for better speeches by Derryn Heilbuth, May 2014

The first speech I ever wrote was for a chairman of a bank. I’d written the letter to shareholders in his annual report and he asked me to prepare his address for the annual general meeting. I accepted with alacrity. When the day of the AGM arrived, I snuck into the back of the hotel function room where it was being held and settled down to listen to him deliver my pearls of wisdom.

It was dreadful. Why?

Being new to the game, I had broken one of the cardinal rules in speechwriting. I had written for the eye not the ear. The way the chairman wrote. Not the way he spoke. To add to my other sins, the speech was too complex, it had too many numbers and tongue twisters like particularly, peculiarly and familiarly.

Many years have passed since then and I’ve written more speeches than I can remember. I’ve trawled countless books, attended courses and conferences and have gleaned a host of tips and techniques. Here are some of them:

Tip #1: Show don’t tell

Anyone ever see the eulogy Brian Mulroney, the former Canadian Prime Minister, delivered at Ronald Reagan’s funeral? Here’s how he began:

In the spring of 1987 President Reagan and I were driven into a large hangar at the Ottawa Airport, to await the arrival of Mrs Reagan and my wife Mila, prior to departure ceremonies for their return to Washington. We were alone except for the security details.

President Reagan’s visit had been important, demanding and successful. Our discussions reflected the international agenda of the times: the nuclear threat posed by the Soviet Union and the missile deployment by NATO, pressures in the Warsaw Pact, challenges resulting from the Berlin Wall and the ongoing separation of Germany and bilateral and hemispheric free trade.

President Reagan had spoken to Parliament, handled complex files with skill and humour – strongly impressing his Canadian hosts – and here we were, waiting for our wives.

When their car drove in a moment later, out stepped Nancy and Mila – looking like a million bucks. As they headed towards us, President Reagan threw his arm around my shoulder and said with a grin, “You know, Brian, for two Irishmen, we sure married up.”

Mulroney is employing one of the oldest tricks in the books – and he’s doing it brilliantly.

The British poet T. S. Eliot once said that the key to successful communication is “show, don’t tell.”

This is especially true in speech-making and this is exactly what Mulroney is doing. Instead of telling us about Reagan’s character, he’s using this anecdote to show the aspects of the man he wants the world to remember: his humour, his warmth, his love for his wife Nancy and – despite the many criticisms to the contrary – his grasp of world affairs.

Great speakers always illustrate their key messages with examples or anecdotes. They don’t tell the audience about a character or an idea and expect them to take their word for it. They show what they mean and in this way supply the evidence to back up what they’re saying.

Tip #2: Timing is critical

Great speakers also know that timing is critical to success. That anything over 20 minutes runs the risk of diminishing returns. This is the most overlooked advice in speech-making.

Ever since Romans stood in the sun to hear Caesar and his senators drone on through the day, ordinary people have had to suffer speech bores.

The 9th US President was William Henry Harrison. He’s remembered for two things. The longest inaugural speech in US history. And the shortest time in office. The two are related. He delivered his staggering one hour and 45 minute speech in a snowstorm with his jacket off. The cold he caught turned into pneumonia and he died one month later.

Death is perhaps too severe a punishment for long-windedness, but it’s worth noting that some of the greatest speeches in history have lasted a few minutes. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address was four minutes long and Reverend Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech was five. There are reasons that these great orations have stood the test of time, and brevity is one of them.

So once you’ve written or prepared your speech, go over it again and again – at least three times – to see what you can cut out of it without losing the sense or meaning of what you want to say.

Tip #3: Do your research

Financial presentations are among the hardest to keep interesting. Here’s a great example of a speechwriter rising to the challenge:

By coincidence I’m speaking to you today on the anniversary of perhaps the most famous report to investors of all time. It was on this day in 1493 that Columbus had to report back to the King and Queen of Spain and explain how he’d spent their money.

The text of Columbus’ report still does exist and a translation of a portion of that text reads: “The reports of monsters are greatly exaggerated.”

And the basic message I have to bring you regarding our performance last year is that reports of monsters are greatly exaggerated.

The writer had consulted a book called Chase’s Annual Events to see what historical events occurred on the day of the speech. As well as historical incidents, Chase’s also lists famous people born each day of the year. It’s a great technique to use – for speeches on any topic.

But you don’t need always need to go to international publications. I once wrote a speech for a black-tie dinner to celebrate Arnott’s 130 years in business (an iconic biscuit maker, no longer Australian owned). To research the speech, I went through the company’s publications and found this little gem:

One day Harold Arnott was mowing the grass around his imposing house at Homebush. The weather was warm and Harold wore old pants and a singlet.

One of his arms was paralysed – the result of a sporting injury – and he held the arm across his body as he manhandled the mower around with his good hand.

As he worked, a passerby stopped to watch him. Eventually the chap called him over to the fence.

“So who owns this big flash place?”

“One of the Arnotts, the biscuit people,” said Harold, wiping the sweat from his brow.

“I thought as much,” said the chap. “It’s no wonder they’ve got so much money, having a poor, crippled old bastard like you mowing their lawn.”

Tip #4: Become a master of verbal variety

Of the current crop of world politicians, Barack Obama would have to be among the most accomplished of speakers. Like all great speakers, he is the master of verbal variety. His language is clear and concise. He uses short words and sentences. He paints word pictures and poses questions. Instead of saying there are three reasons, he’ll say:

“Why do we do this? There are three reasons.”

He adds texture to his speeches by varying his pace, volume and vocal tone.

And he truly understands the power of the pause.

Tip #5 Work on your ending

Like a good novel, a great story or moving piece of music, if you finish on a rousing and uplifting note, you will reinforce your speech’s messages and you’ll leave your audience with a strong impression they’ve heard something worthwhile. Your conclusion or a call to arms doesn’t need to be complex. It can be short and very simple.

A useful rule of thumb is to have three points, three being a number that many orators and educators recognise as having most impact.