Speechwriting: Art or Business?

Ella Crowsley breaks down the finer points of speechwriting, and how it can be considered an art form unto itself

Image(s): history.com


Writing for the spoken word is an artistic discipline that cannot be underestimated, requiring writers to create work designed primarily to be heard, and not read or seen. We often forget those slaving away for hours to create the words that we, as an audience, take away on hearing. When we hear ‘Make America Great Again’ or even ‘Strong and Stable’, we make our jokes and we remember the phrase, without considering the time spent crafting the perfect soundbite. Perhaps this means that the speechwriters have done their job, forcing us to take away snippets of a speech, implanted into our brains, without realising how cleverly crafted it is. The linguistic artistry behind speechwriting is truly fascinating, and particularly interesting when considering the direct impact of the speech on an audience.


Now, let’s be clear, it requires a certain panache to pull off a good speech and the speaker certainly has a lot to do with how well a speech will come across. However, just because you are a good speaker, does not mean you are a good speechwriter. The best speechwriters will cleverly adapt to both their speaker and audience, tailoring their choices of words accordingly. It’s important for speechwriters to analyse audiences according to factors such as gender, profession, age, and even the size of the audience. So, what’s the key to writing a memorable speech?


Well, the first thing that comes to mind is prior research and inspiration. No matter how clever you are with words, without a deep understanding of the subject matter and an idea to motivate you, you have nothing. Ken Askew, a freelance speechwriter for luminaries such as George H. W. Bush, states that he is constantly looking for ideas for his next speech, to the extent that he carries around a large box in which he throws notes jotted on napkins, adverts and newspaper clippings that inspire his writing. Askew says that “good speechwriters need to be idea sponges”, taking in everything around them and storing it for later use.


Then it comes to the hard part, the actual writing of the speech. Although every writer will have their own way of getting words onto a page, most seem to suggest simply getting core thoughts and ideas down, before refining individual words. Askew suggests that to provide an outline of what the final speech will look like, you first create a “destination document”, detailing the main point of the speech as well as giving an indication of the tone and general feel you want the speech to have. Once you then come to fully developing your initial ideas, you have a good place to start from!


Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of speechwriting, in comparison to other genres, is the necessity to appeal to an often auditory-only audience. Whilst writing always involves putting words effectively to paper, speechwriting requires a few rather specialised strategies. For example, the rule of three, a language technique often used in persuasive writing, becomes all the more effective when verbalised. Ira Kalb from USC’s School of Business states that our brains have evolved to panic if we are not presented with choices, but gets overwhelmed or confused with too many options. The rule of three works perfectly with this theory, offering listeners a perfect soundbite of three options to memorise from the speech. A perfect example of this can be seen in Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, in which he referred to his Government as that “of the people, by the people, for the people.” This extremely memorable phrase succinctly involves each and every person listening, drawing them in and subconsciously implanting the phrase into their memories, all while providing them options, so they don’t write off the whole phrase.


Similarly, other researchers have suggested that most speeches are divided into three distinct parts, almost in the form of a beginning, middle, and end. This helps the listener to fully track the argument and see the ideas develop in a logical way, without too many steps. Dale Carnegie once said, “tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you just told them.” This can be seen in a plethora of political speeches in which the technique is used to emphasise the key point intended for the audience to takeaway at the culmination.


Furthermore, the difficulty of writing for the ear, rather than the eye, comes in the auditory quality of words and the rhythm that they create. A beautiful sentence written down may evolve to become a tongue-twister or a long-winded phrase when spoken, ruining the flow of the speech. Some speechwriters have suggested that we process auditory imagery slower than visual artwork, and so drawing an auditory picture with descriptive words becomes all the more important.


Punctuation is yet another aspect that cannot be forgotten, with merely the tiniest dot impacting how a speech is delivered, and in turn interpreted. The famous book entitled ‘Eats, Shoots & Leaves’ depicts a perfect example of this, contrasting a panda that eats shoots and leaves with a shooter in a bar who eats, shoots, and leaves. The titular syntactical ambiguity here shows the importance of each individual grammatical choice in a speech, an art form in which the intention is for the audience to take away a message. The necessity to stop misinterpretation is paramount. Furthermore, punctuation arguably becomes an art form in itself, as it should reflect the structure of the speech, reinforcing the rhythm and pacing of the words. The pattern and flow in which words are heard can greatly affect how they are received by an audience, and this is all affected by the punctuation used.


Finally, the individual lexical choices used by a writer can change the interpretation of a sentence in a split second, particularly if you cannot see the words written down. Homophones that could be misinterpreted should definitely be avoided. The misuse of sees, seas, and seize in the wrong circumstances could be disastrous! Furthermore, single words can influence how we remember or understand meaning in a speech. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan wasn’t just effective because it was short and snappy, but because it was clever. The use of the adverb “again”, in just one simple word, implies that America has previously been great, but made worse by the Democrats, and implies that only he has the power to return the country to its glory. Now, whether you agree with him or not, there’s no debate that the writing is impeccable, and this was a particularly effective soundbite when repeated throughout each speech he made in his 2016 campaign.


Through analysis of multiple speeches as well as research into the practice of speechwriting itself, the art form has presented itself as more complex than I could have ever imagined. Each word and image is carefully selected to paint the detailed auditory picture you takeaway upon hearing it. The research carried out to understand an audience, the speaker, and the subject, combined with outstanding linguistic choices all come together to make speechwriting an incredible artform.