Speechwriting: Start with one killer line

You can build an entire speech around one line.

One line that you would love to say aloud, from the podium, just once.

A line you would love to be known for. Something you have been itching to say.

A line that makes you a bit nervous. Or maybe a truth that everyone knows, but doesn’t admit. A line that could make you famous, or get fired, or

Find that one line, and you have your speech.

I was working with a EVP who was invited to address an event for women in tech. She wanted to do it. It would boost her reputation. But she had no ready-made speech in the drawer, and no idea what to talk about.

So we spent a week or so tossing around ideas. Nothing worked. She started to think she had nothing meaningful or interesting or instructive to say.

Then, when we were brainstorming on the phone,  the phrase ‘work-life balance’ came up.

“Ack!” she said. “I hate that stupid notion. I’m lousy at it, and I’m sick of feeling guilty about it. As if there is some magical balance point. Everyone is only pretending anyway.”

She ranted for ten minutes. It was personal. She had felt it in her bones for years. We discovered that it touched on wider issues that she wanted to express, professionally and personally.

The talk took shape very quickly. I wrote it that afternoon and evening.

And no, it didn’t come out angry or raging, either. Her talk was thoughtful and insightful and meaningful for her. There was delightful applause.

I try to look for that ‘one line’ all the time.

Sometimes it’s the beginning of the speech, which will set the whole thing galloping.

Or maybe the killer line is the end. And the idea is to build up to it.

The line doesn’t always survive untouched. It usually morphs into something even smarter or funnier or entirely different.

But it lights the fuse.