You’ve written the speech, and it has everything: moving anecdotes, a few telling facts, a gripping narrative, a rousing call to action and a conclusion that will have your speaker’s audience on their feet. (Clapping, not leaving. Important distinction there.) Best of all, it’s the final draft, all approved and ready to send to the client.

Time to call it a day?

Maybe not. Before you shut down Word (or whatever hipster Markdown-based text editor you kids are using these days), your speaker may want you to format the speech for delivery. And depending on who you’re writing for, that may involve some significant time.

Unlike, say, screenwriting, there’s no standard for formatting speaking notes; just about everything depends on the preferences and needs of whoever will be delivering it. But there are a few conventions and good practices to keep in mind — things that will make your speech look crisp and professional, but more important, will help ensure if gets the best possible delivery.

(By the way, if you’re formatting for a Tele-Prompter or something similar, ignore everything here and ask the operator what they need.)

Title page

A title page serves many purposes: it helps ensure your speaker has the right text with her when she heads to the podium; it gives you the critical information about the speech at a glance years from now when you’re sifting through your files; and it keeps any nosey parkers from getting a sneak peak of the speech if they happen to catch a glimpse of the speaking notes.

About the only convention for a title page is that it should have the words “Check against delivery” displayed prominently. That reminds anyone reading the document that these are speaking notes, not a transcript; there’s every likelihood that what the speaker actually said differs from the text at least a little. (Sometimes a lot. Don’t take it personally.)

I like to include the name of the speaker; the title (if any) of the speech; the name, date and location of the event; and of course “Check against delivery.” For example,

Notes for an address by
Olivia Moore, M.D.

“Combatting the Real Brain Drain”

Annual Convention of the Living-Impaired
Seattle, Washington
October 6, 2015

Check against delivery

The type-space continuum

Welcome to a world of tradeoffs. Bigger margins at the bottom of the page can keep your speaker from having to look too far down the page. Bigger type means the words are easier to read at a glance.

But those also mean fewer words on each page, and more pages overall. Which in turn means more distracting page turning, and more chances for something to go wrong (like two pages sticking together, resulting in an abrupt transition from the middle of a heart-rending story to the punchline of a fart joke).

I like to start with 14-point Helvetica type and a three-inch bottom margin as my default; many speakers (especially older ones) will ask me to go to 18-point and four inches. And I give the lines a little room to breathe, setting the line spacing at 1.5 or 2.0, so the speaker will have room to mark up the text however they like.

A quick note about type: some people have it in their heads that a speech is only a speech if it’s in all caps or small caps. (I blame IBM for calling that particular Selectric typeface “Orator.”) But study after study confirms that for passages of text longer than a few words, mixed-case type (like the sentence you’re reading right now) is vastly easier to read.

Line breaks, paragraphs and pages

While few speakers like to be stage-managed from the page, you can still provide helpful, unobtrusive cues for delivery with your choice of line, paragraph and page breaks.

The simplest technique is to break lines at the end of natural phrases, not in the middle of them. For example,

Don’t try to frighten us
with your sorcerer’s ways, Lord Vader.
Your sad devotion to that ancient Jedi religion
has not helped you conjure up the stolen data tapes,
or given you enough clairvoyance
to find the rebels’ hidden fortress.

Put your paragraph breaks at a point where a pause — short or long — would make sense. And as much as possible, break pages at a point where a long-ish pause wouldn’t be out of place.

Page numbers

For the love of god, number your pages.

Speakers often shuffle pages as they mark them up, flipping from section to section, and it’s easy to wind up with out-of-order speaking notes. (Not to mention the worst-case scenario where they slide off the podium.)

Position the number according to the speaker’s preferences (I prefer the upper right corner). It doesn’t have to be the same size as the speaking text, but make it big enough to be legible at a glance.

Direction

The most direction I usually add to a speech is an ellipsis (“…”) to indicate a long pause. From time to time, I might include “(ask for questions)” or, where the speaker has an anecdote they know well, “(your Stanford escaped-duck story)”.

If you absolutely must include directions (“pause”, “wave”, “brandish sword”) in the text, then make it very distinct — for example, with italics or boldface.

But avoid including direction like “Applause”, “Laughter” or “Deafening ovation”. Apart from seeming presumptuous if anyone looks over the speaker’s shoulder, it can be disconcerting if the applause, laughter or ovation fails to materialize.

Distribution copies

If copies of the speaking text are going to be available, then bring the type size back down (typically to 12 point), restore normal margins and, if you’ve included any direction, remove it. Keep the cover sheet on.

The final word

What I’ve described here has worked for nearly all of the people I’ve written for.

But there are exceptions. There was the speaker who wanted “just bullet points,” which turned out to mean not a bare-bones outline, but a complete speaking text with bullets at the beginning of every paragraph. Another speaker who insisted on Small Caps throughout the speech.

Were they right? Objectively, it’s arguable… but ultimately, they’re the ones who have to deliver the speech, and they’re the ones who will be accountable for how it goes.

Which means that you can offer advice, suggest alternatives and make your case… but the correct formatting is whatever works best for your speaker.

Original photo by Lee LeFever: “Common Craft: Tools of the Trade.” Used under a Creative Commons license. By the way, check out Common Craft’s amazing tools for explainer videos!

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