When you’re a speechwriter to the secretary of state, you work on any number of remarks each week: keynotes, testimony to Congress, press availabilities, op-eds, and statements. You are also writing for many different audiences — at home and abroad. It’s a delicate balancing act. It’s also one of the best jobs on the planet. I learned many of these lessons from writing my way around the world with a wonderful team at the State Department. I hope you find them helpful — whatever path you choose to take. 

  1. Find your why. A speech about everything is a speech about nothing. Anchor your remarks around a central value or message. Before you draft, think about what you want to say and the headline you’d like to see in the next day’s papers. You should be able to sum up your speech in one sentence. Ask yourself: so what? Why does this message matter and why now? The sharper your answer to the “so what” question, the more compelling your speech will be. If you’re stuck, begin with the end. Good speeches take the audience on a journey; they resonate in the heart, not just the head. Knowing how you want to end the speech will help you shape its narrative arc. If you end on a note of optimism and hope, build momentum early by conveying a sense of urgency about the challenges. If you end on a note of personal reflection and growth, start with a time when your judgment was clouded.

  2. Show, don’t tell. The best definition of a speech that I ever heard was this one: “tell the truth memorably.” Concrete examples are the way to do that. Instead of saying that someone is a “dear friend” or a “champion of human rights,” show it with examples: the battles they won and lost, the legislation they passed, the lives they touched. The same principle applies to policies and programs. Instead of rattling off the numbers of dollars spent or other abstractions that go in one ear and out the other, illustrate your points. Show how those policies and programs helped real people in specific communities. Create a motion picture in the minds of your audience, not a still frame.

  3. “Deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex.” This morsel of wisdom from Mr. Rogers isn’t just good neighborly advice; it’s also the key to good speechwriting. One of the most rewarding (and daunting) experiences of writing at the State Department is drafting remarks about a bewildering array of issues, often on tight deadlines. It’s tempting to make up for one’s inevitable sense of imposter syndrome by using big words, fancy jargon and complex syntax. Resist that temptation. Jargon is useful shorthand when you’re speaking with other experts, but not when you’re trying to reach a broad audience. Speeches are about persuasion, and the best way to persuade is with simple, clear prose. Peggy Noonan, President Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter, makes the case for language that’s plain and direct: “Big things are best said, are almost always said, in small words.” This advice is important to remember in the age of soundbites at 140 characters. High flights of rhetoric and wordplay are fun, and they can help you make your points with flair. For maximum effect, use rhetorical devices sparingly. Don’t force them. They should emerge organically as you write. Allow your ideas to drive your words, rather than letting your words be a substitute for good ideas.

  4. Frame before you proclaim: Giving structure to your speech is a sign of respect for the audience. It also makes your words easier to follow and remember. President John F. Kennedy’s alter ego and speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, said that every speech should contain the following elements: levity, brevity, clarity, and charity. There’s no perfect formula, but that one comes pretty close.

    Here are two others. The first is called “Monroe’s Motivated Sequence” or MMS. It sounds complicated, but it’s actually one of the most common ways to structure a speech:

    • start with an attention grabber—an image or story that captures the audience and makes them sit up and pay attention;

    • lay out your statement of purpose—an answer to the question “so what”;

    • define the problem—an opportunity to create a sense of urgency;

    • offer a solution—a responsibility to point the way forward;

    • show with visualization—a picture of the world as it might be;

    • issue a call to action—a challenge to your audience to face the world as it is; and

    • close with a clincher—a last chance to drive your message home.

    I learned about this structure in Bob Lehrman’s The Political Speechwriter’s Companion. His advice is worth remembering. A good speech is well-balanced: If you’re all problem and no solution, the audience will feel deflated. If you’re all solution and no problem, the audience won’t be motivated to act. If you skip the call to action, the audience won’t know where to direct their energy and commitment.

    Another structure I’ve found helpful is “trust, argument, request.” It comes from a former White House speechwriter. Good speeches build trust with the audience, deliver a clear argument, and make a big request. All three elements are important, but trust is essential. If an audience believes that you share their values and understand their concerns, they are primed to listen to your arguments before you even make them. Speeches have a place in our fast-paced, 24/7 news cycle because they create the space for dialogue and invite people to join a conversation. The big question is—how do you earn trust?

  5. Tell a story. The surest way to build trust with an audience is to tell a story. That’s how we process information, learn new ideas and remember big events. Don’t take my word for it. Think about the most compelling speeches in your life. My guess is that what stays with you are not the arguments, policies or programs, but the personal narratives and the way they make you feel. Stories do that. They lift up and inspire. They connect, challenge and captivate us. They reveal deeper truths about the human condition. They can also break up the rhythm and characterize your speaker. You’re not going to persuade an audience with facts alone; you need to place those facts in the context of a story. There are books a plenty about how to write good stories. One lesson I’d share is that what you leave out is just as important as what you put in. Stories require imaginative leaps – you want to give your audience just enough detail to take the first step with you, but not so much that they can’t imagine the journey for themselves. And since all good stories weave together plot, character and theme, it helps to follow tip #6.

  6. Click here to read the other 5 tips from Andrew Imbrie, former Secretary of State John Kerry’s foreign policy speechwriter!
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