Many books on speech writing discuss the delivery of speeches as much as the creation of the content of speeches. A false equivalence is thereby implied. This may be because the writers of these books envisage their reader as a novice of both speech writing and speech delivering. The two are however quite separate, although what goes into a speech is not fully divisible from how the speech is delivered. The art of speech writing is not the art of speech giving. But there are overlaps. And I will mention a few here.

A speechwriter should write with the speaker in mind, and endeavour to play to the speaker’s strengths and avoid showcasing the speaker’s weaknesses. So, delivery – or, rather, the deliverer – does influence content, but only to a degree. The speech writing process should take into consideration what needs to be said, of course, but also how it needs to be said, and who is speaking. For example, a speech may be written with somebody’s natural language fluency factored. Skilful orators allow the speechwriter more liberties, more opportunities to communicate not purely through the word, but also through tone, cadence, and other devices. Shy, non-native, nervous, unconfident, or reluctant speakers must be written for with simplicity and clarity as the foremost considerations.

The foregoing notwithstanding, speech writing must prioritise the content of the message to be conveyed. That is, the entire speech should be constructed around a specified and agreed upon set of key points – a brief, ideally. All else is secondary; while it is certainly useful to consider the speaker’s idiosyncrasies and even perhaps the comprehension skills of the audience, these remain secondary considerations.

As I said, the delivery/deliverer influences content. This is true, but the delivery/deliverer does not determine content. What determines content is a fully articulated, explicitly clarified brief, in which the essential message is unambiguously and concisely stated. This gives the speech writer full knowledge of what the speech must achieve. No speech can ever be successful if it fails to deliver the intended message in the way intended. The provision of such a speech is the art, obligation, and function of the speechwriter. Content is primary. Style and all other considerations are relegated to the status of supportive but ultimately inessential.

Therefore, composition occurs before styling. For this reason, it may be a good idea to have a content draft sign-off stage, at which whoever is commissioning the speech formally approves or requests revisions to the content draft. Following sign-off at this point, the writer can then begin to shape and style the speech to suit the speaker. This is the optimal sequence.

If the writer begins composing according to the speaker, then the message’s content may be inadvertently sacrificed and the speech will be ineffective. (Imagine how the speech will read when transcribed, as it inevitably will be.) The order must therefore be message first, styling second.

A speaker will be forgiven for poor oratory but never forgiven for incorrect data, avoidance of issues of deep importance, or omitting mention of problems that people expect him/her to solve or at least acknowledge.

Rhetorical devices, story telling, alliteration, transitions, and all the other details of speech style are improvements and niceties that can, if necessary, be applied – just as the books recommend – but only IF they are appropriate to the message and facilitate its communication. Imagine how a CEO’s address to staff facing redundancy would be received if it featured an attempt at a funny anecdote, immaculate transitions, and a sprinkling of perfectly placed classical rhetorical devices. Who would care? Even if they were noticed – not eclipsed by the existential gut punch of the message – would they not simply infuriate whoever was receiving those bleak tidings? Now imagine how a congratulatory speech recognising staff involvement in the company’s recent success and declaring pay rises for all would be received. Who would care or even notice its clumsy or plain delivery?

I think you get the point. Message first; style second. Message, not style, will be remembered. Message, not style, will be acted upon. Message, not style, will inform and inspire. Style helps the message, not the other way around.

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