Speech-writing – for whatever occasion – is likely to fill you with dread.
However, help is at hand!
I am pleased to say that I have persuaded Shirley Wootten to share her experiences with us.
Shirley is a copywriter and the founder of stress-free speeches, a business she set up to coach anyone worried about having to give a speech at a wedding (or any other social event).
She’s been involved in local theatre for 30 years – acting and directing – so she knows what stage fright feels like, and can find ways to improve a performance.
She has come up with a process that will smooth away most, if not all, of your worries in this area! Read on, and learn!
Taking the fear out of writing a speech
It can be daunting, to say the least, to come up with a speech to mark an occasion.
A couple of deep breaths at this point will work wonders. And now we’re going to break the task down into small steps.
Let’s assume that you’ve had plenty of warning. If you’re a top table guest at a wedding, you’ve probably been in the know for months. This is good, because the Most Important Advice is to give yourself time to write the speech. Begin at least a month before the big day.
Next, recognise that even world-famous writers tremble at the prospect of a blank sheet of paper. You’re in good company.
So let’s do something about that blank sheet. Whether you’re writing or typing, starting off with something silly often helps to break the fear. Just setting down, ‘I can’t think of anything to say’ will get you off the mark and make sure that the page isn’t blank any more. Then you can either continue in the same vein for a while – a whole paragraph expanding on the fact that you have nothing to say – or begin to list a few of the ideas you’d like to get across.
You’re on your way.
If you’re struggling to know what to say in your speech, or to organise your thoughts, a brainstorming session can be helpful and good fun to boot. It works best with pen and paper – or coloured pencils, crayons, anything that takes your fancy – rather than a keyboard and a screen. (But if you just wanted to launch in and start making a list of thoughts, that would work too.)
Get a large sheet of paper and put the words ‘My Speech’ in the middle of it. Then draw a line from those words a short way and write whatever comes into your head (if you draw a bubble round each word or phrase, that will stop all the words running into each other and will help you to read everything back afterwards). So, for example, you might write ‘thank yous’ and then, out from those words, a bubble for each of the people you’d like to thank, with a further reminder next to each name of the service they provided. Then go back to the centre, run another strand out from ‘My Speech’ and start a new topic.
And so it goes on, until you’ve covered everything or writer’s cramp has kicked in. You’ll probably surprise yourself with the number of ideas you’ve jotted down, but you can now start to put the main ones into some sort of basic structure, which is the start of the speech.
In no particular order – because you can decide on that later – take each topic you’ve identified during the brainstorm and write a short paragraph on it. If you find you’re writing more than one paragraph, keep going until you run out of things to say, then move on to the next topic. Don’t worry about the length of the speech, or being too fussy about grammar and spelling (in fact, you might not need to worry about that at all; if you’re the one reading it on the day, you can spell words any way you like, although punctuation will help you to remember to breathe, at the very least); at this stage it’s all about getting reasonably structured thoughts on paper, unhindered.
This stage may take several sittings, as you tackle a fresh topic each time, but that’s often the way it goes, so don’t be put off or worried if it never seems to end. You’ll get there.
When you’ve worked through all the ideas that your brainstorming session produced, clip together all the pages of your rough speech, or save them on your laptop/tablet, and ignore them for a few days. This is very important and means that when you read them over, you’ll be seeing them with fresh eyes. Inconsistencies will leap out at you and you can begin the editing process.
This is not meant to be scary. This is a fun part and means that you’ll have a lovely, polished speech with which to amaze (and amuse, if appropriate) your audience.
Begin by reading the speech to yourself out loud. Just hearing the words will highlight things that you might want to change completely, or that simply don’t sound quite right. As you read through, make notes on the pages as you go – a printed copy will be helpful here – but don’t make the changes yet; keep reading out loud, through to the end. In this way you’ll hear any repetitions and can begin to choose which bits, if any, to delete.
Now go back to the start of the document and work through it, making the changes you’ve identified. As the whole thing takes shape, you can decide which order to impose on your topics, by rearranging the paragraphs to suit your purpose.
And after that, put the edited speech away again for a day or so (remember, this is important; think of it as fermentation for an ultimately fizzing, fabulous speech) and repeat the process as often as you choose, until you’re satisfied with the end result.
This is your speech, of course, so you can decide what to say, what to include and what to leave out. Funny is usually acceptable to everyone, but you’ll be the best judge of your own talents as a stand-up artist, so include more or less humour, as you see fit. If you know your audience well, you might share a couple of family stories that you know they’ll all appreciate. If you don’t know them so well, you may want to keep the tone a little more formal. (Word or warning here; make sure the speech is about the guest(s) of honour, not about you. A couple of self-deprecating remarks as a personal introduction will work well, but then move on to the topic in hand.)
You might want to check that your speech doesn’t cover the same ground as those given by your fellow speakers, but beyond that, you can have free range of topics. Again, you will know what is and isn’t appropriate.
Enjoy the speechwriting experience. Be as creative as you like. Everyone will appreciate your hard work and you might unearth a hidden talent. Then the fun will really start…
Shirley would be very happy to hear from you if you have any concerns about speaking in public or putting words on paper.