Speechwriting: It’s about structure

It’s easy to think that writing a speech is mainly about the words.

As if the idea is to craft silken phrases that roll off the tongue, and make the audience chuckle in appreciation, or nod in agreement, or rise up against injustice. Or at least make them eager to hire you.

(All of which I can do brilliantly, mind you.)

But what counts most is the structure of the talk. The architecture. The bones of it.

If I get that right, all goes smoothly and I have earned my exorbitant fee.

My skillful wordplay has little to do with it.

Recent example. A longtime client, a VP, was asked to deliver a high-visibility speech at an industry forum.

After some phone conversations and several emails, I had worked out a speech that she was happy with.

“It feels like me,” she said. She was eager to give it. She started practicing and rehearsing in her living room.

The night of the event, four minutes after she left the podium, she sent me a text full of emojis and exclamation points. She was ecstatic. She was a hit.

Naturally, I basked in the glow of my own genius. I re-read the speech four times to admire the sound of it.

A week later, I got to watch the video of her speech online.

She was right. The talk was tight and coherent and the audience was with her. She looked confident, at ease, and smart. Precisely what she was hoping for.

But it wasn’t the talk I wrote. Not quite.

She had delivered the whole thing in her own words. Except for a few of my most elegant passages.

She had swapped out some anecdotes, added others. She had deleted a few points in favor of new ones.

But she kept the spine of the talk: the thread, the theme, how it set up and unfurled.

That’s what made the talk work. That’s what made her comfortable with it, and what made it easy to deliver. That’s what allowed her to put things into her own words.

When you get the structure right, fleshing out the speech is relatively easy.

Even better, it is simple to remember and comfortable to deliver. You don’t need to read it verbatim.

Of course, the best structure for a speech depends on the mission, and the nature of the material.

There are some classic architectures: the string of beads, ‘veni vidi vici’, the memoir, the three-act play, what I did on my summer vacation, open letter.

Or you just have to build one for the task at hand.

It’s much like stringing out a clothesline between the back porch and a tree in the yard.

After that, you simply have to hang things on it.