Rules are made to be broken, at least some rules. The rules of speech composition might be a case in point. If they are followed mechanically, as if they constitute an unquestionable, universally applicable formula, then the resulting speech is likely to be a predictable, yawn-inducing, fake-sounding monologue. It might even sound modular, template-driven, or rather cliche-riddled, giving the impression that the writer has simply painted by the numbers, so to speak, as if s/he had been directed by some basic speech writing guidebook (which is probably the case).

It is a mistake to apply rules at cost to content, useful originality, and/or, indeed, style.

A good speech should depart from convention whenever more effective, more intuitive, more engaging methods are available.

Most basic speech writing guides suggest that a speech should open with an introduction and salutations. However – important though both can be – far more exciting, stimulating, and magnetic forms of opening are possible. Moreover, when speeches are delivered to internal audiences, or even external audiences familiar with the speaker’s credentials, hellos have to be brief, and the need for standard introductions and background is slight to zero.

Similarly, speech writing guides recommend the inclusion of a funny story, an empathy building anecdote, or some other form of speaker-audience “bridge building”. When such has been heard a few times, staleness is the effect, and the audience may simply wish the speaker to get to the point, not waste time by faithfully, blindly ticking the formula boxes.

Speech writing how-to texts strongly recommend the use of transitions. Useful though these can be, they have their limitations.  Zealous signposting is dependably counterproductive: texts can easily become stuffed, padded, inflated, swollen, bloated (like this sentence) with what will seem to any impatient audience absolute redundancies in intolerable quantities. If the audience needs reminders, pointers, flags, and links every few lines, then the content is too dreary, lumpy, wordy, unfocussed, stilted, or self-referential to engage. In other words, it’s not a speech – it’s a rambling indulgence serving little purpose and pleasing few. If the audience cannot follow the thread, then there is no thread to follow. If the audience cannot recall or anticipate key points, even from short term memory or indicative breadcrumbs (respectively), then the content is boring, and boring speeches are very, very unlikely to either impress or inspire, which is what all good speeches should achieve, as a minimum.

In such cases, the writer must ask her/himself –

  • Why is this speech so hollow, so banal that it needs to constantly flag up where it is going?
  • Why is my audience probably going to be lost if I don’t pepper this verbiage with overt direction signalling?
  • Do I want to send my audience to sleep with leaders and trailers every 30 seconds?
  • Has it lost audience-centricity?
  • Is this effort a jumble of blocky bits that reflect the “rules” but cause the speech to fail in its purpose?
  • Is the substance of the speech convoluted or somehow opaque?
  • Have I written in stream-of-consciousness style?
  • Is this speech too florid, too clever, or too littered with rhetorical devices for its own good?

(The last three are real hazards, to which graduates of humanities and, especially, literature are exceptionally prone.)

Oh, and about that obligatory anecdote: is it really needed? If so, why? What does it add? Is it authentic, appropriate, and likely to have the desired effect, i.e. does it trigger empathy and reveal the humane side of the speaker? Is evidence of humanity and empathy on this occasion necessary? If it isn’t, that might be no bad thing. Are you sure the audience will want or benefit from this vignette? After all, you risk losing their attention with this deviation (informative though you hope it will be), and its meaning could be lost or detract from the core message. Does it sound like another chunk of fill-in-the-blanks inserted to comply with a book on corporate speeches or some list of public speaking pointers for self-doubting managers? Sometimes, a speech’s anecdote is remembered only for its being the most awful part of a generally awful listening experience. If in doubt, leave it out!

Rules can be useful, but their application must be guided by informed judgements about the audience and the nature of the speech and speaker. Read the rules, understand their rationale and value, but let appropriacy and efficacy vis-à-vis the desired outcome of the speech be the foremost determiners of content. Facilitation of the message is paramount.

Spread the news