This week I’m working on something a little different. I will be speaking at a tech conference in May as a keynote speaker, which means I need to write a speech. It’s a different type of writing, similar to blogs, yet not intended to be archived as the written word. As it turns out, there’s quite a bit of contradictory guidance about speech writing in the world. Some say you shouldn’t write out an entire speech at all, just its outline, as anything more will result in a speech that sounds unnatural and dull. Others say you should write out the whole speech; reading it aloud will help you find where it doesn’t flow and help you keep track of what you want to say. With practice, a written speech will turn into a confident story you’ll present to others.
Since I am a writer and editor before most other things, I think the “write it out” option will work best for me. But there’s still more to keep in mind.
Speeches vs. Blogs – Length
Blog posts are generally 1500-2000 word essays with varying levels of formality. They are often written with SEO in mind, highlighting keywords that will help the post rank well in search engine rankings.
Speeches, on the other hand, are going to have a wide range when it comes to length. That said, a 20-minute speech is between 2500-3000 words. They are not written for search engines; they are written for a live audience and immediate feedback, though some speeches are known to go well beyond the speaker’s lifetime. Speeches are not optimized for SEO, but they do tend to repeat the key words (not the keywords) of the main message. And, of course, speeches can rely on the tone and personality of the speaker in ways that a blog cannot, though vlogs blur that boundary.
For a blog to be successful, you have to engage your reader. For a speech to be successful, you have to engage your audience. Forbes had a few more suggestions for blogs that also applies to speeches. I particularly liked the recommendations to speak directly to your audience, ramp up on visuals, and ask for engagement. How these tips are implemented will differ between a speech and a blog, but the ideas are spot on. Capturing this as you’re writing is the really tricky bit.
For the first tip, speaking to your audience, the key word there is “to.” Speaking to your audience is different from talking at your audience. Speaking to them invests them in a conversation rather than letting them zone out over the lecture.
If you can use visuals, you have the opportunity to engage more of your readers’ or listeners’ senses. You can also lose your audience to distraction, so be mindful of when, how, and what kind of visuals you offer.
Asking for engagement is possibly the most critical thing you can do with audiences. In a speech, you’ll ask your audience to raise their hands in response to a question or leave your speech with a particular call to action. In a blog, you’ll ask them to leave a comment or share the article with others. This call to action gives them a sense of owning the moment with you and makes all the difference in the world.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that all good writing has a structure. From poetry to playwriting to technical white papers, there is a structure that provides support to the reader or, in the case of speeches, to the listener.
One of the most common structures is the Introduction, the Main Message or Topic, Supporting Material, and the Closing. This blog post follows that structure, and speeches do as well. There are a few additional Very Strong Suggestions to consider in this structure. First, when thinking about your main message, you should be thinking about one thing. If you have more than one message to share, write more than one blog post or speech. If you only have the opportunity for a single post or speech, then I’m sorry, you still have to pick one message and stick to it.
For your supporting material, how many examples or anecdotes you choose will be partly limited to how much time you have. Three is generally a good number for most speeches and posts, but you can go as high as five if you have the time and content to do so.
And let’s not forget a solid closing! I call it the Wrap-Up; others call it the Takeaway Message. Whatever you call it, you must ensure you send your audience away with your message and a call to action. The closing will be the part they will most likely remember, so make it good.
As much as both forms have an audience that, when you’re writing, is entirely in your own mind, the actual public release of the content changes everything. The moment you’re giving a speech, you have the opportunity to adjust in real time to your audience’s reaction. While this doesn’t impact the speech-writing process, it is something to consider when you practice the speech you’ve written. With a blog, while you do (if you’re lucky) get feedback from likes and comments, they come well after you publish the content.
Visuals are also a pretty important point of differentiation. Blogs are read on electronic devices, held in or near someone’s hands. Live speeches are on stage with weird lighting and people from 20 to 200 feet away from the speaker—the physical mechanics of how they perceive the content change fundamentally.
Here are a few tips to remember for your live audience moments:
- The audience can listen to you, or they can read your slides. They can’t do both at the same time.
- Make sure you’re using images you’re allowed to use.
- If you’re at an in-person event, high contrast is key!
- Accessibility is just as important in speeches as in your blog photos. Don’t depend on the visuals to make the point. No matter what you do with your slides, not everyone can see them. Or if they can see them, they can’t always see them the same way (e.g., color blindness).
I admit it. This post has been a bit self-serving. I am reminding myself about the big things I need to remember for my first solo keynote. It’s a few months away, but goodness knows, I’ll need the practice of going through the speech at least 1000 times to be ready for being on stage. I’m not sure my cats will give me the feedback I’d like, but everyone has to start somewhere!
It’s also worth noting that I’m not doing this alone. I have friends ready to hear me practice (after I’ve finished practicing with the cats) and I have a speech writer who does this kind of thing for a living giving me pointers (thank you, Daron Christopher! You’re awesome!)
And while I’m doing all that, I’m still preparing my blogs and newsletters every week. I hope you’ve been enjoying them, and if you have, that you’ll consider sharing them with your friends and families so we can grow The Writer’s Comfort Zone community.
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