A questioner on Quora asked a while ago how long it takes to write a speech, and what factors affect it. Here’s my answer:

I’ve smashed out seven-minute speeches during an election campaign while the plane was landing for statements the speaker gave as soon as they descended the stairs for the aircraft. And I’ve worked on a few speeches off and on over several weeks in advance of major events.

Here are some of the factors involved:

Time available: Sometimes you just have to do what you can before a painfully tight deadline, and you adjust your ambitions accordingly. Yes, you’d like to craft rhetoric that will endure through the ages, the kind of speech that schoolchildren will recite a hundred years from now — but meanwhile, the new parkade opens in half an hour, and that ribbon ain’t gonna cut itself.

Budget available: How much of my time the client can pay for can be a big limiting factor. (That said, I’ll always put enough time in that I’m confident in the speech I’m handing over.)

Research: How much information is readily available (and easily assimilated), and how much will I have to dig up myself? Do they have examples and anecdotes they’re comfortable with (and that have been fact-checked and confirmed)?

Clarity, as Jimmy says below. Does the client know the gist of what they want to say, and just needs someone to flesh it out and put it into more memorable, engaging words? Or are we going to need to talk that through? Often I find clients think they know what they want to say, but the moment you try to give it some structure and substance, that illusion fades away.

Related to clarity: consistency. Whether they come from a client changing their mind about the speech’s direction, or a situation and environment that are shifting constantly, changes are going to require more time… sometimes going right back to first principles.

Revisions are probably obvious. I rarely need more than two rounds; if I do, it’s a sign that either I’ve screwed up or the client has changed their mind.

Humour. If you want a lot of jokes, it’s going to take longer (unless the inspiration fairy decides to pay me a visit, and the laughs start flowing naturally).

Familiarity. If I know a client and their area well, then things can go much more quickly. The first time I write about a particular subject, there’s going to be some added time while I look up terminology and vernacular, and find examples and touchstones that this audience will relate to.

Typically, though, I can finish the first draft of a 20-30-minute speech in a few days, provided I get clear direction and have an agreed-on narrative arc. (Speechwriters, note that the “get” in “get clear direction” is an active verb. You have to ask for it, sometimes persistently, often asking the same question in different ways.)

How about you? What’s typical for you? And what’s the fastest you’ve ever pounded out a speech?

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