The Art of Speechwriting: Or how to say what you want to say in as few words as possible

I recently took on a pro-bono speechwriting assignment for a politician just getting his feet wet here in Maine. I’ve written speeches before, mostly for an executive in an international non-profit. But that was easy: the executive has a captive audience and these speeches are usually given at black-tie events in the presence of fundraisers, educational and political officials, and on rare occasions kings and queens. People listen at these events because it’s what you have to do before they let you get your dinner.

But writing a speech for a candidate that has low-name recognition in a competitive race for state senate was another challenge altogether. It’s one thing to get people to listen, but how do you get them to pay attention? This has broader implications for communications. Many people may see your tweet or your blog post, but will they read the content, process what it says, and act? There are no easy answers.

That said, there are a couple of good rules of thumb. The candidate in question sent me a text of nearly 600 words. It was wordy, so the first thing I did was to cut repetitions and ask him to really hone in on his platform, which as this is for a political campaign, has several major points.

Many believe that repetition is good, that if you say things a few times, you will drum home the point, the message will sink in, and it will stay with the intended recipient. Arguably, this may be effective for an advertisement that will play over and over again, but when you have just one chance to connect, you have to make it count. My advice would be that the key to writing a good communication piece is the same as writing a good piece of fiction (especially a short story): trust your audience’s intelligence. If you explain what you are trying to say well, you won’t need to repeat yourself. If it’s clear, there will be no need for clarification.

Writing a speech is the same as writing an academic paper in college, or even a cover letter for a job. Introduce yourself, dive into your facts or experience, list your most relevant points, and making your closing argument. Here is an excerpt from the candidate’s first draft of the speech, followed by what it became in a later version:

When I came to Portland 30 years ago for my internal medicine training, the islands of Casco Bay (and incidentally—Munjoy Hill), were Portland’s poorest districts. Health services on the islands were almost non-existent. Peaks Island was known as the Welfare Island. But where some saw only gritty hard-working fishermen, as a community organizer, I saw an opportunity to improve public health.  In my last year of training I met with island individuals and organizations and together, we achieved what some thought improbable; Federal designation of the Casco Bay Islands as a Health Manpower shortage area. In my first job as a Public Health physician on Peaks Island, I staffed a two room clinic in a donated cottage.  I worked with and staffed the Chebeague Island clinic.  I travelled by boat up and down the bay to make house calls. A lot of them, more than 150 a year.  And sometimes I was paid; often I was not. Or I was given fish or lobster or clams. (167 words)

This eventually became:

When I came to Portland 30 years ago, the Casco Bay Islands were among Portland’s poorest neighborhoods. But where some saw poverty, I saw an opportunity to organize the islands and improve health care. In my first physician job, I travelled by boat up and down the bay to make house calls – more than 150 a year. Sometimes I was paid in lobsters or clams. (65 words)

If you notice, most of what came out were excess details that weren’t always crucial to telling the larger tale. We just stick with the important stuff; the old adage “less is more” usually rings true. This text tells the same story using approximately 40 percent of the words.

The biggest challenge sometimes is letting go of details that you feel will connect well with the client. This is why it’s probably best to hand over your texts to a professional editor. We’re not emotionally attached to the document and we have your interests at heart: we want you to effectively communicate with your audience. It’s what keeps us in business.

As a follow-up: the candidate, Chuck Radis, is plugging along and giving his stump speech. He’s building support the old fashioned way: going door-to-door, shaking hands, and speaking in informal engagements and settings. It’s not a bad strategy in a city like Portland, Maine. At two minutes, his speech is long enough to get his main points across and short enough not to lose anyone that’s willing to stop and listen to what he has to say.

You have to match the content to the audience (and their format and attention span), not the other way around. If you think you’re being wordy, you probably are. Whether it’s a million-word opus or a 140-character tweet, have someone take a look at your text. A fresh pair of eyes can help your content reach its full potential by using fewer words and packing a greater punch.