Updated: Mar 1
That’s usually the first question I get (even before how much does a speech cost?).
I’ll admit, speechwriting is a bit of a weird task. You are asking someone else to write the words that you ultimately going to say and be responsible for. There’s a lot riding on that.
Here’s an overview of the process followed by the values driving it:
I first send the speaker a survey tailored to the speech itself. I have a set of questions for each speech type that ask about the audience and the types of things that the speaker would discuss in a typical speech in that category. For example, in my Commencement Speech survey, the questions will draw on the speaker’s education and life experience and how those lessons can inspire the students and their families in the audience.
Next, the speaker and I discuss those answers over the phone or in-person if that’s feasible. In this conversation, the goal is to go into more depth on the answers. Sometimes the answers can be done in one phone call but if it takes more that’s fine.
Usually the answers from the survey and the phone discussion are enough to get a first going. Once that draft is ready, I’ll send it over. At this point, it’s up to the speaker to say which parts sound like him/her and which ones don’t.
The process then repeats itself with the draft going back and forth. That’s where the magic happens. Through sending and revising various drafts, the speaker and the writer get closer to the ideal speech.
It’s a partnership:
Both the writer and the speaker have to come into the project being willing to put in equal effort and work to make the speech work. If it’s a speechwriter’s first time with a speaker, it will be hard for the writer to know immediately what the speaker likes or doesn’t like in a speech.
The discussions and revisions help the writer to better understand the particular quirks and ways of saying things from the speaker. I’ve had some speeches where the first draft has been almost perfect.
In those, the speaker provided ample stories and supporting information in their survey answers. But I’ve had other speeches where the speaker fills out maybe 10% of the survey and thinks that is sufficient to create a speech. Those are the toughest when the speechwriter has to invent much of the speech with little source material.
I know that many times the key speaker is quite busy and their staff handle s much of the heavy lifting when it comes to the speech’s content. That’s fine as long as the speechwriter you are working with still gets some time with the speaker to understand how they speak and how they are approaching the ideas in the speech.
Revision is key:
The tough part about the first speech between a speaker and a writer is that the two don’t know each the other one’s style or approach. Sure, sometimes the speaker has past videos or speeches but that’s a luxury more than a routine source.
However, if both sides go into the speech knowing that it will be revised a few times then it’s much easier to take chances and allow ample time to get the speech right. But once that first speech is completed and more are done between the writer and the speaker, the process becomes easier.
After a relationship has been developed through multiple speeches, this process will be much easier with the speaker able to say, “Can you write me a speech based on the following 3 main points?”
Getting the voice right:
This is probably the top concern of many speakers yet for the most part it’s not as hard as some make it out to be. Many speakers, especially in the corporate world, want to sound authentic, professional, and put together. Most speeches aren’t dramatic screenplays filled with intricate backstories and unique accents. Rather, most times, speakers just want to sound like themselves when giving their speech.
This comes through not so much in the choice of words but in the examples and stories that the speaker uses. If you are telling true and authentic stories from your perspective they will come through as “you” and no one else. The tone and voice will take care of themselves.
Where speakers go wrong is when they have to say something they know is not true or in line with their values or when they have no passion for the subject at hand. In these instances, the speaker’s thoughts and emotions trump any words that they might be saying and the audience is instantly able to tell that the message is inauthentic.
My approach to prevent this from happening is through getting the speaker to become vulnerable in front of the audience when appropriate. This might be in the form of telling a part of their personal story that is relevant to the speech or it’s in admitting that there is a problem but providing the solution at the same time. Your voice as a speaker will come through when you are most authentic with your audience.