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Want to know the secret to writing a great speech?

The other day I was listening to a speaker on TEDx¬†talk about the¬†secret to writing the great speech. She had me hooked. Afterall, in one part of my life I’m a speech writer. If anyone has found¬†the holy grail of speech writing –¬†the secret to writing a great speech –¬†I want to know it. The secret she said is the structure of the speech. All great speeches begin with the present (“I have a dream …”) then shift to the future (“One day all God’s children …”). And then¬†work back and forth between the present and the future drawing their audience forward in the dramatic tension between what is and what will be. Great, only one problem. It isn’t true.

The great speeches aren’t all structured in this single way. Pick up William Safire’s collection of the world’s great speeches, Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History. You’ll quickly discover¬†¬†other ways. Examples? Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address (“Four score and seven years ago …”¬†) begins with the past not the present. John F. Kennedy’s opening statement in the televised Nixon-Kennedy Presidential Debate also begins with the past (“In the election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln said …”).¬†Mark Twain’s much celebrated¬†recounting of his battle with stage fright¬†begins with the present (“My heart goes out in sympathy to anyone who …”) but then shifts sharply to the past not the future¬†(“I recall the occasion of my first appearance …”) and then resolutely stays there. I could go on but I leave it to you to discover the many other structures that provide the scaffolding for great speeches.

What can we learn from this? There isn’t one right way. You can succeed in a thousand different ways. Have a look at Saffire’s collection. It’s worth your careful study even if your next talk is a Monday morning briefing at Bombardier and not the opening of the United Nations in New York.

The secret to a great speech?¬† There isn’t one right way.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, February 23rd, 2012
Permalink Communication, Corporate communication No Comments

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