How to Write a Speech or Presentation

Writing a speech? Then visit Paris

Whenever I visit Paris I always do my favourite walk… from the Louvre to the Arc de Triomphe via the Tuileries the Place de la Concorde and the Champs Elyssee.
I start from the Louvre, and the great thing about this walk, is that from the beginning, you know where you’re going. This walk has three parts… a beginning, a middle and an end, the same three parts that your speech should have, and hopefully… in that order. And throughout this walk, in the distance, you can just make out the Arc de Triomphe, this walk has a purpose, a final destination… just like your speech.

The purpose of your speech

Before you can start writing your speech, you need to have a clear purpose. What are you trying to achieve? If you can’t write your purpose in a single clear concise sentence… you will struggle with the rest of your speech.

“A man without a purpose is like a ship without a rudder.” Robert Carlyle.

Your purpose could be anything:

  • To inform people of the reasons for the Credit Crunch
  • To entertain people at a social gathering
  • To persuade people to vote for you

To clarify what you are trying to achieve, and to remind you when you start to wander, at the top of your script write… “The purpose of this speech is……………”

Everything you write should be written with your purpose in mind.

“The common knowledge divides presentations by various purposes. Traditionally, the big three are speeches to inform, speeches to entertain and speeches to persuade. The uncommon knowledge is that everything you say involves persuasion” – Malcolm Kushner

If the main purposes of a your speech is to entertain, don’t simply tell a string of jokes or funny stories. Leave that to the stand up comedians. Your speech should entertain but it should do more…..

“Speeches that entertain, do more than entertain: They also create social cohesion by generating good feelings…….
Even when your main purpose is to be entertaining, you should still include at least one serious idea in your speech. Why? A speech that is all fluff can sometimes become tiresome and vacuous.” – Laurie Rozakis Ph.D.

Beginning your Speech

Why do I start my walk from the Louvre? Because it has the greatest impact, it’s inspiring, dramatic and demands that you give it your full attention. You have the great glass pyramid reflecting in the sunlight, the water feature in front all set against the classical backdrop.
The beginning of your speech should be just like that. It should grab the audience and hold their attention and it has to do it from the beginning. OK you don’t have the grandeur of Paris to help you, but you can try some of these…

  • Use a famous or unusual quotation – “Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all others.”
  • Ask a question – “Have you ever been in prison? I have.”
  • Use a startling statistic or fact – “Children laugh about 400 times a day, while adults laugh on average only 15 times a day.”
  • Relate a short story or anecdote – “While travelling down the Tigris and Euphrates rivers many years ago…..”
  • Make a promise – “When you leave here today, you will have the solution to…..”
  • Use humour – “I have always been short, but today I’ll be brief.”

Whatever method you use it has to grab the attention of the audience and make them listen.

Psychologists have shown that the first 30 seconds have the most impact. So don’t waste time. Don’t say, “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s a pleasure to be here.” Come out punching. – Patricia Fripp

What else should your beginning do?

Once you’ve grabbed the attention of the audience, you have to do a few other things before you dive into the body of your speech. Tradittionally the beginning of your speech should:

  • Allow the audience to get used to your voice – make sure that you speak slowly
  • Provide reasons for listening… what’s in it for the audience – describe the benefits
  • Give the audience an idea what your speech is about and what you’ll cover – provide a route map

The middle of your Speech

This is the meat and potatoes oy your speech, and if it’s a good speech… you might throw in a few veg.
This is where you present your information, facts and figures, statistics, quotes to prove your point, humorous stories to illustrate a point,
Your speech should be arranged around a number of main points and these points should be arranged in a logical order.

How many main points should your speech have?

When you start to write your masterpiece, you’ll want to tell people everything. Don’t! Limit your main points to three, almost everyone agrees that three is the best number.

“I like to get my talk down to three “big hit” things that people can take home with them. Whenever a speaker starts off with “Here are 10 points I’m going to make…..” I go to snoozeville.” – Dr Ken Blanchard

You can add sub-points to your main points but limit your main points to the tried and trusted triad, stick to three.

Use a strong pattern to structure your speech

During my walk I can’t go wrong, because all my intermediate places of interest are in a straight line and follow on from each other. My order is the Tuileries the Place de la Concorde and the Champs Elyssee. No wavering or going off course, not even a detour to look at the Eiffel Tower. That’s for another walk, another speech.
In your speech it’s not so easy…. make sure that your main points are in a logical order. This helps the audience follow your speech and it helps you to remember.

Traditional patterns to structure your speech are:

  • Numerical order eg. first point, second point, third point.
  • Time related eg. past, present, future.
  • Geography eg. in the UK, in Europe, in the USA.
  • Problem, cause, solution.
  • Extended metaphor e.g. like this article, which compares writing a speech to a walk in Paris.
Put your best material last

If your speech has three main points and you’re not sure what order to put them in, arrange them in ascending order of importance with your best material last.
The audience tend to remember your final point the most, so make it a good one.

Mix the facts with emotion

Don’t be afraid to use emotion in your speeches. Plain old facts and logic can only go so far, we often make our decisions using emotion and feelings. As the old saying goes… “Facts tell, feelings sell.”
The best speakers move us to action via our emotions.

Open with a laugh – close with a tear. – Dottie Walters

Ending your Speech

As I walk up the Champs Elyssee, I’m beginning to feel weary but I know that I’m coming to the end and my final destination will make it all worthwhile.
Same for your speech. Your ending has to be signalled and it can’t just peter out, it has to make all that listening worthwhile.

If the beginning of your speech has to grab the attention of the audience, the ending has to leave them with something memorable to do, to act on, to think about, to give them hope.
The ending is the part of your speech the audience will remember… no pressure there then!

It’s been said that a speech is like a love afair: Anyone can start one, but it takes a lot of skill to end one well.

The conclusion must do two things. It must remind the audience of your main points and it must satisfy the listeners, leaving them in the proper mood or frame of mind.

Use voice music to let us know it’s the end

When you deliver your final words, it should be obvious to the audience that you’ve finished… it’s the cue for the audience to applaud. If the audience don’t know that those were your final words, there is an embarrased silence and the speaker has to say “Thank you” to let the audience know it’s the end.
Dilwyn Scott the National Training Officer for the Association of Speakers Clubs talks about using “Voice Music” to let the audince know that you’ve finished. In other words, it’s not just what you say but how you say it that says to the audience “you can applaud now.”
Listen to the endings of famous speeches, and listen to the “Voice Music”.

Always end on a positive note

No matter how sad the occasion, how bleak your message, always leave the audience feeling good. Even if all you can do is give them hope for the future – motivate the audience to take action.

Use transitions to link your speech

Transitions are the phrases that tie the pieces of your speech together. They let the audience know that you are moving to a new section of the speech or to a new point. They’re the glue that holds the whole thing together.
Any short phrase can be used as a transition but here are a few to give you the idea:

  • Let’s take a look at those points in turn…..
  • Moving on to my second point……
  • Another reason for…..
  • Those are the arguments in favour, what about the arguments against……
  • So what are people saying about…..
  • That brings me to my final point…..

Don’t just change direction… use your indicators and let the audience know where you’re going!

Bonus Speech Writing tips

I know this has been a long post, and thanks for staying to the end. As a small reward here are a few bonus Speech Writing tips:

  • Make sure that you write your speech to be spoken, not read.
  • Use the showbiz formula – strong opening, strong close.
  • To give your speech impact, cut out the adjectives and adverbs, use nouns and active verbs.
  • Get the proportions of your speech right – The beginning should be about 10 to 15 percent of your speech, the ending should be about 5 to 10 percent.
  • Write the introduction last – after you’ve written the body and conclusion, you’ll know what you’re introducing. Then write the introduction.
  • For a great finish to your speech, tie it in to the beginning – by repeating at the end of your speech the idea, quotation, image or whatever you offered in the introduction, you give the audience the feeling of coming home again – this gives a wonderful sense of completeness to your speech.
  • If you want to read more about speech construction, read Public Speaking for Dummies by Malcolm Kushner
  • Work and rework your speech. All good speech writers will tell you that there’s no such thing a good writing, only good rewriting.
  • Learn to judge the length of your speech by the number of words – after you have written and delivered a few speeches, you will be able to corrolate the number of words to the time taken.
  • Give your speech an interesting and enigmatic title and don’t decide on your title until you have written your speech.

My thanks to Innusa for the gorgeous image of Paris
And thanks to the following authors:
Malcolm Kushner – “Public Speaking for Dummies”
Lilly Walters – “Secrets of Successful Speakers”
Thomas Montalbo – “The Power of Eloquence”
Laurie Rozakis, Ph.D – “Idiot’s Guide to Public Speaking”

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  1. What a good article! This needs to be standard procedure and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

    • Thanks Brian.
      I couldn’t have wished for a better comment.
      Look forward to seeing you at the Sans Souci Speakers Club Anniversary dinner.

  2. Hi Keith. This is an excellent article. It has reminded me of my time with Toastmasters and the “Icebreaker Speech”. Public speaking was not one of my fortes and still isn’t. The icebreaker was, funnily enough, my favourite speech. I went over that nervous edge using the shock factor to catch the audience’s attention (and hopefully take the focus off my nerves).

    I held my speech in my hands and started to introduce myself; then I acted like I couldn’t go on, crumpled up the paper and tossed it behind me. Little did they realize that I had another copy waiting for me on the podium.

    • Great stuff Davina – you sound like a pro to me.
      Doing something like that to “take the focus off my nerves” is always a good idea.
      I would recommend that anyone who wants to make a start in Public Speaking should join a Speakers Club.
      Toastmasters in the US or in the UK you have a choice of The Association of Speakers Clubs or Toastmasters.
      Hope to hear more of your time with Toastmasters.

  3. Just wanted to stop by and say that I hate hate HATE public speaking, although I do acknowledge that it’s a lot about experience and being prepared. I used to do it a lot and had absolutely no problem but haven’t done it in several years and now I suck at public speaking. 🙁

    Good luck with the site!

    • Hi Vered – thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.
      Hope you keep reading our articles and who knows… you might replace that frowning face with a smiley one.

  4. David Grainger says:

    The article is great, with the Bonus Speech Writing Tips especially good. I think you must stress the first one, that the speech must be written to be spoken, not read. An audience doesn’t want to listen to an essay, a spoken presentation has the audience relating more easily.
    The point of a snappy intro is well made, and is given the importance it deserves. Start them with a question or a funny one-liner and you have their attention.
    Well done for encouraging speaking in public.
    David Grainger

    • Couldn’t agree more David.
      Writing a speech to be spoken is so important… but not easy.
      Most of us have only ever written school essays or formal letters and our first attempts at writing a speech sound just like essays.

  5. Hi Keith,
    Another great article. Great how you literally walk us through the art of writing a speech. I also agree with David about the essay/speech difference and find that practising what you are saying by reading your speech out loud really helps – like you have talked about in your most recent blog.
    Thanks again 🙂

    • Hi Charlie
      Yes David makes an important point.
      Problem is… for most of us the only writing we’ve ever done has been a school essay or a business letter.
      Neither are very good models for writing a speech.
      It takes time to learn how to write for the ear, but well worth the effort.

  6. So, it’s a little like when writing a good blog post. The only difference is that after writing a post you have to submit it which is a hell of a lot easier than having to present your speech. 😉
    .-= Sire´s last blog ..Perception Is Important To Your Blogging Career =-.

    • Hi Sire
      Never thought of it like that, but you’re right. When I write a post I try to get some of the ingredients of a good speech – an interesting beginning, short sharp sentences, a bit of humour – well spotted.
      BTW is that a new Avatar you have or is my memory playing tricks?

    • Yep, it’s totally new. I thought I would look a little more professional if I put some clothes on 😀
      .-= Sire´s last blog ..Release The Child In You And Become A Better Blogger =-.

    • Hitting the Submit button and presenting a speech hold two very different feelings for me, haha. That’s not a bad way to look at it though. When writing a blog post, treat some aspects like a speech. And then imagine presenting the blog post to a large audience. If you wouldn’t be satisfied presenting it to an audience, maybe the post itself could use a little reworking.

      The Walk Through Paris is a nice analogy Keith. Now if only I could experience that first hand!
      .-= Ryan Cowles´s last blog ..Taking a Train Across the Country – Part One =-.

    • Hi Ryan
      I write a speech much the same way as a write a post.
      I try and keep it light and conversational.
      Know what you mean about a walk through Paris… has to be my favourite city.

  7. Hey Keith,

    I wish I could be in Paris.

    I’ll have to settle for looking out my dining room sliding glass doors at all the beautiful fresh white snow that blankets my backyard.

    I don’t plan on giving any speeches anytime soon but I can use this same advice for writing articles or posts on my blog.

    I’ll have to try and do what you say about breaking down your speech into three parts.

    You say grabbing the attention of your audience in the first 30 seconds is critical in public speaking. Well I think the same applies to blog posts and especially sales copy.

    If you don’t grab them by the eyeballs in the first 7 seconds with your sales copy you’ve lost them. They have itchy trigger fingers ready to click that mouse to move on to something better so you need to make those first few seconds really count.

    I don’t know what kind of speaker you are Keith because I’ve never heard you speak. But what I do know is that you’re a very good writer. This is one of the best articles I’ve ever read and I’ll be referring to it often as I write my own articles.

    Jeff Sargent
    .-= Jeff Sargent´s last blog ..Aweber Click Tracking – How Not To Do It =-.

    • Hi Jeff
      Great to see you back and many thanks for your kind words.
      I think you are right… writing a speech and writing a blog are similar processes.
      The tone of both is conversational but has to be well structured.
      Grabbing the attention of the audiece or readers is so important. A great graphic, a compelling title or a first sentence that can’t be ignored. Or why not use all three?
      BTW Jeff, sorry you had problems posting and thanks for trying again.

  8. Hi Keith,

    Your post is truly a highly reliable source of information, thorough step by step guide on good public speaking.

    When one goes through these steps it is so much easier to speak publicly. It reminds me a nice quote of Henry Ford “Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs” 🙂

    .-= Justyna Bizdra´s last blog ..Is WordPress Security of any importance to you? =-.

  9. Keith, what a thorough post – and way to go on drawing parallels to the beloved Paris and to my favorite walk as well – I love the line “Come out punching”. I cannot agree more with all your advice here. The most interesting was “put your best material last” – I can see your validation – yes they do remember the beginning & end very well so I always recommend a strong finish rather than fizzling out – but I tend to divvy up the important points throughout the speech. I think it may also depend on the speech. Great comparison to the love affair too :)!

    • Hi Farnoosh
      Good point about spreading your best material throughout the speech – help keep the attention of the audience.
      Sounds like useful advice to me.
      Glad you enjoyed the walk.LOL

  10. Absolutely agree with what Sire said above about a good speech or presentation being like a good blog post (or any other piece of writing). All writing should have a good, middle and end.

    What is great about giving presentations is the instant feedback you get from your listeners, you can see if they are switching off and pick up the pace to bring them back etc.

    What you said about ‘Write the introduction last’, is a great tip and I find this works with my other writing also. People write an introduction and then fit their writing around it where I like to just let go and flow until I’m done and then write a good introduction that pieces it all together and leads the listener / reader in the right direction.

    Great tips.


    • Hi Karl
      Thanks for a great comment.
      It constantly surprises me how similar writing a blog post is to writing a speech – relaxed and conversational.

      The thing I decide last of all when I’m writing a speech, is the title.
      A good title always comes out of the body of the speech.
      And when you find the right title… you know you’ve found it!

      Hope you’ll visit again… soon.

  11. This post should be distributed to any student enrolled in speech class. This post is easy to understand, much better than what is written in textbooks.