Official Blog of Bannon Leadership Consulting Founder Shawn Bannon

Tips for Speechwriters (and Other Communications Professionals): Getting Your Speaker to Deliver the Speech that You’ve Written — Part 1

A few years ago, I was asked to write a piece for the Washington Speechwriters Roundtable about the frustrations of writing a speech only to watch your speaker go off the page and, more often than not, bomb.  So, I thought I’d take a little time to update that piece and to share a few tips here, which I’ll be doing over the coming weeks.

Part 1:

As people who write the words for other people to use, we’ve all been there.  You’ve done the legwork — phone calls to event organizers, audience analysis and exhaustive research.  You’ve outlined the speech and refined that outline with six reviewers.  You’ve moved through nine revisions, taken notes from 12 reviewers who don’t know the first thing about effective oratory, and you finally have it – a speech that is purposeful, poignant and poetic.  You turn it in to your speaker, and he says it’s great.  Now, how do you keep him from tripping all over himself when the time comes to share the wonderful speech you’ve written with the rest of the world?

It happens all the time.  A speaker stands on the dais with a well-written speech in hand, but the words that come out of his mouth don’t bear much, if any, resemblance to the words on the page. 

He refuses to look down at his speech.  Maybe he’s afraid the audience will be gone by the time he looks back up at them.  Maybe he thinks he is good enough to speak extemporaneously for 15 minutes.  Scripts are for lightweights, after all, and he’s a heavy hitter.  So, instead of delivering his speech – your speech – he bobbles the jokes, fumbles the applause lines and travels off on tangents that make it difficult for him to find his way back to his key messages.  He finally stops abruptly, breathes a deep breath, and says, “In conclusion,” wrapping up with two or three poorly articulated sentences that his audience will have forgotten by the time they turn in their tickets at the coat check.  

Somewhere along the way, your speaker may have blurted out a line – or even a few – that he remembered from the speech you wrote, but they’re either so superior to the rest of what he’s said that even the good lines come across as forced and unnatural or he completely bungled them, too.  And when it’s all over, you get the blame for how poorly it went or your speaker is oblivious to the fact that he just spent 20 minutes doing a slow-motion impression of a human Hindenburg while 250 prominent people anxiously looked for the nearest fire exits.

Are you, the speechwriter, helpless?  Are you doomed to repeatedly experience the rage and disappointment that an event like this inspires?  Should you be driven to stop attending your client’s speaking engagements because you can’t bear to watch the carnage unfold?  The short answer is no.

There is plenty you can do to help your speaker become better at delivering the speeches you’ve written.  In the coming weeks, I’ll give you five tips that should produce positive results and just might help you to solidify your role as an advisor to your speaker.

Tip 1.      Knock your speaker down before you lift him up.

It’s the hardest thing about the job for most of us – telling the client that he’s delivered a terrible speech (or a series of them).  Our clients often have big egos, and they don’t always react well to criticism.  They may become defensive or angry.  But as a speechwriter, you’re doing a disservice to your speaker if you don’t tell him that he’s losing the attention of his audience and accomplishing very little when he steps to the podium. 

Nobody else will tell him, and there’s certainly some risk involved in doing it yourself, depending on his temperament and your tactfulness.  But that is the job, and as a client of mine who frequently ignored the text on the page once blurted out during a speech, if you can’t take the heat, get out of the … room with the stove and the food.

If you don’t believe your client will take constructive criticism well, consider using audience polls or asking him to watch/listen to a recording of himself to demonstrate that there is a lot of room for improvement.  Look for strengths he can build on to become more comfortable working from a prepared text.  Ask him pointedly what it is he’s struggling with when it comes to working from a written speech.  And remind him that a lot of people – people he trusts – put a lot of effort into making sure he was armed with a speech he could be proud to deliver.  All he has to do is continue to trust them when he steps in front of the audience.

A good writer of speeches is hard to find, but the surest path to becoming a trusted adviser is to tell your speaker what he needs to hear even when the news isn’t so good.  Just make sure you have an action plan to help right the course, and your speaker (if he’s smart) will come to respect you as a reliable problem-solver.

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