Just got a message from a public relations student asking me for advice on a speechwriting career. I resisted the competition-stifling urge to invent some dire reason why she should go into some other field (“You’re very brave, given all that media hysteria about Speechwriter Syndrome. If you ask me, it’s way overblown – I hardly even miss my pancreas. What’s that? Why, yes, polling can be an even more lucrative field. No thanks needed; happy to be of help.”) and instead offered the following, which I’m posting in case anyone else finds it useful:

The single best advice I can offer on speechwriting is to do it. Find volunteer opportunities to write speeches: community agencies that are making presentations to city council, a parents’ advisory committee that wants to appear before the school board, whatever grabs you. Start small, with speeches that are maybe five or six minutes long, and then work your way up to longer ones.

There are all sorts of books on speechwriting, some of them great (Peggy Noonan’s first book, the title of which escapes me — I think it may be “On Speaking Well” — is wonderful, even if she does come from the opposite side of the political spectrum from me) and some of them less so. (Avoid anything with the words “1,000 Great Jokes For Wedding Toasts” in the title.) There are also some great resources online, such as the American Rhetoric site.

But there’s nothing like reading and, ideally, listening to great speeches to really hone your craft. Check out Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama‘s addresses to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Martin Luther King, Aung Sun Suu Kyi and others. There’s also the terrific Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century Speeches and Dennis Gruending’s Great Canadian Speeches.

My writing tips, in skeletal format: keep your sentences short and simple. Vary your pace for focus, emphasis and variety. Use humour freely. Parallel structure and groups of three (“I came, I saw, I conquered”) are your friends. Cliches aren’t. Set out at the outset what your speech will entail, and give at least an implied outline, with subtle cues along the way so your audience knows how far they are from the end and the bathroom. Concrete examples, visual images, conflict and drama will all trump statistics, but a carefully-chosen compelling number can still help make your case. End with some kind of call to action, whether it’s simply to consider what’s been said or to storm the Legislature with torches and pitchforks. And begin and end with a needle-sharp focus on your message: exactly what it is your speaker wants to say, wants the audience to believe, and wants the media to report.

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