Colin Moorhouse has been a freelance speech writer for twenty-five years and has written for clients in government, at NGOs, and in the private sector. “I get to put words in people’s mouths,” he said, “which is a very nice thing.” He also enjoys that speech writing exposes him to a huge variety of topics (much like editing). Some are more interesting than others, but even the boring ones aren’t boring because Moorhouse needs to devote only a short burst of attention to it. “I can be interested for the three days it takes me to write the speech,” he said.
The key difference between speech writing and other kinds of writing is that it’s all about writing for the ear, not the eye. Even if you’re a skilled writer, what you write may not sound natural for someone to say out loud. “Who didn’t say this,” he asked:
Don’t think about all the services you would like to receive from this great nation; think about how you can make your own contribution to a better society.
That’s, of course, a paraphrase of the famous line in John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech: “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” You can tell which would have a bigger impact spoken aloud.
When words are written for the ear, said Moorhouse, they cater to the imagination. We filter those words through our own experience. The kinds of written materials that most closely resemble speech are letters and diaries, and he’ll sometimes use these to help him write a person’s voice into a speech. “People say that to write great speeches, you should read great speeches. I don’t think so. You should listen to great speeches.”
Speeches are not a great way to share information, Moorhouse told us, because we forget what we hear. Instead, speeches are about engaging an audience so that they’ll associate the speaker with that event or topic. Moorhouse listed six considerations when he writes speeches.
“If your speaker’s a great orator,” he said, “they can almost read the phone book, because there’s something about their voice.” But most speakers aren’t like that. “Ninety-nine percent of my speakers aren’t good. That’s not to criticize them; they’re not trained.” Moorhouse has to find ways to make the words make them better speakers.
The nature of the event factors largely into Moorhouse’s speech writing. Does the audience want to be there, or did they have to be? Is the speaker delivering good news or bad? Will there be 30 or 300 people? Will there be a mic or no mic? PowerPoint or no PowerPoint? Will people be live-tweeting or recording the speech? How knowledgeable will the audience be, and what mood will they be in? Each of these elements can change the speech entirely.
“Storytelling is an incredibly valuable part of speech writing,” said Moorhouse. “Stories ground all of us to our common humanity.” If you’re editing a speech and you find it boring, ask the writer if the speaker has told them any stories.
“Humour is not joke telling. Jokes never work.” Moorhouse added, “I can make people cry a lot more easily than laugh. We grieve at the same things, but humour is very localized.” Self-effacing humour tends to work well, especially if it’s embedded in a story.
“This is where you and I have our strengths,” he said. He advocates using simple language and declarative sentences.
“I believe we should be able to walk into almost any presentation and find it interesting,” Moorhouse said. “All speeches are potentially interesting.” If you’re editing a speech, the best litmus test for whether a speech is interesting is to ask yourself, “Would I want to sit through it?”
The great thing about speech writing is that you don’t need all six of these elements to make a good speech. Maybe the speaker’s not a great orator, for example. You can use the other elements to compensate.
Make sure you home in on a speech’s intended message, he said. If you find that your speech seems to be rambling, you haven’t nailed the message. If you need to, go back to the speaker and ask them to complete the sentence, “Today I want to talk to you about ______.”
In terms of process, Moorhouse suggests asking the client for the invite letter and event agenda, so that you know when the speech will be. He doesn’t always get to meet the speakers, but if he does, he’ll tape his interview with them so that he can listen to their voice and catch the intonation and the words they use. He’ll also interview people who know the speaker or the organization’s front-line staff to glean information and stories. He doesn’t use outlines, although other writers do. The danger with presenting an outline to the client, though, is that the client might want to circulate it to a bunch of people, which would hold up the writing process. Moorhouse spends about an hour on every minute of the speech—20 hours working on a 20-minute keynote.
Moorhouse offers a full online course about speech writing on his website, which includes a 170-page manual and four live webinars. He also offers a short course, with a 50-page manual, a speech-writing checklist, a webinar and a 20-minute consult.