Speechwriting: Why Write Your Speech or Presentation?


When I discuss my speechwriting experience with some of the businesspeople I meet, they are surprised that anyone would pay someone for speechwriting services. Common questions include:

  • Why would a person pay for speechwriting services?
  • How can you provide speechwriting if you are not an expert in the field?
  • Is it ethical to have a speech written by a professional speechwriter?

I have also met people who were amazed when they learn that most executive and politicians don’t write their own speeches. For example, Obama didn’t write his own speeches and almost always read them from a teleprompter. In fact, he would often struggle when the teleprompter stopped working or when speaking without a script (as in this video).

When asked in advance to speak, speechwriting is the last thing on the mind of many. They have mixed feelings — they might look forward to the possibility of expressing their message, but they may also feel anxious about the best way to present it. An easy way to avoid speechwriting is to ‘wing it’ by having a general idea of what to say, creating an outline and then practising the speech a few times before the event. It can work for an experienced and confident speaker, but usually the result would have been much better if they had taken the time to write a speech.

If we look at the great speeches in history, they were all written in advance — and many times professional speechwriter was involved in the speechwriting. It simply isn’t possible to perfect your language without going through the speechwriting process. A good speech requires research to find and choose the appropriate elements, such as stories, humour and facts. It also requires creativity in selecting the best words to convey the message. This includes redrafting your speech until it feels right.

The Myth That Words Don’t Count

The false belief that the words have little importance in speeches and presentations has been propagated by an unfortunate myth. Some leadership consultants repeat it without knowing its source and what its author was really saying about communication.

In the late 1960s, psychology professor Albert Mehrabian wrote that:

  • 7% of the message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in the words that are spoken
  • 38% of the message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is the way that the words are said
  • 55% of the message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in facial expression.[1],[2]

This has been misinterpreted over the years and is incorrectly believed to mean that in any spoken communication, including speeches and presentations:

  • 7% of meaning is verbal (words)
  • 38% of meaning is vocal (how the words are said)
  • 55% of meaning is in facial expression.

What Mehrabian was really writing about was the inconsistency in messages pertaining to feelings and attitudes in one-on-one communication. For example, if you see an acquaintance who says he is glad to see you, but he is frowning, 55 percent of the meaning you interpret is from his facial expression. In this case you would doubt that the person is glad to see you.

In explaining his research, Mehrabian wrote:

Please remember that all my findings on inconsistent or redundant communications dealt with communications of feelings and attitudes. This is the realm within which they are applicable. Clearly, it is absurd to imply or suggest that the verbal portion of all communication constitutes only 7% of the message. Suppose I want to tell you that the eraser you are looking for is in the second right-hand drawer of my desk in my office. How could anyone contend that verbal part is only 7% of this message? Instead, and more accurately, the verbal part is nearly 100% of the message.[3]

He later stated:

Please note that this and other equations regarding relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like-dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable.[4]

The idea that words make up only seven per cent of our messages was never meant to be applied to public speaking. Unfortunately, it has gained popularity in some circles — including Toastmasters and Neuro‒Linguistic Programming (NLP) — so you will find people who believe words don’t matter very much — so speechwriting must not be important. They incorrectly think that body language and vocal and facial expressions are the keys to conveying their message, since the words only count for seven per cent of its meaning.

But even if you still believe that words have little importance, let’s look at speechwriting from a historical perspective. When you consider the well-known speeches delivered by leaders throughout history, do you believe that the words are unimportant? Probably not. Although speakers such as Martin Luther King (I Have a Dream) and Winston Churchill (We Shall Fight on the Beaches) had distinctive voices and knew how to use them, it would be ridiculous to say that the content of their monumental speeches only accounted for seven per cent of the meaning and that speechwriting was not a major factor in the impact of these speeches.

The power of words has been proven beyond speechwriting. Many years ago, I worked in market research and learned how important it was to read interview questions accurately from the survey script. This is because market research professionals know that changing one word or phrase to another word, which has the same or very similar meaning, can significantly influence survey responses. As the Pew Research Center explains:

The choice of words and phrases in a question is critical in expressing the meaning and intent of the question to the respondent and ensuring that all respondents interpret the question the same way. Even small wording differences can substantially affect the answers people provide.

…For example, in a 2005 Pew Research survey, 51% of respondents said they favored ‘making it legal for doctors to give terminally ill patients the means to end their lives,’ but only 44% said they favored ‘making it legal for doctors to assist terminally ill patients in committing suicide.’

Although both versions of the question are asking about the same thing, the reaction of respondents was different. In another example, respondents have reacted differently to questions using the word ‘welfare’ as opposed to the more generic ‘assistance to the poor.’ Several experiments have shown that there is much greater public support for expanding ‘assistance to the poor’ than for expanding ‘welfare.’[5]

If such minor wording changes in market research surveys can influence the way people feel and respond, then we need to think very carefully about the thousands of words we use in our speeches and presentations. Speechwriting is the process of choosing and organising these words that have a major impact on how people feel and respond.

Speechwriting Enables You to Refine Your Ideas and Apply Your Research

The speechwriting process includes researching, developing and organising supporting material, creating a structure and using words for the most powerful effect. These basic elements that make a successful speech can be combined to create the desired outcome when you plan and write your presentation. The act of speechwriting can spark creativity to produce an impressive result.

Delivering a speech from an outline or having a general idea of what you want to say will not create the same outcome. Doing the research and thinking it through as part of the speechwriting process is the only way to find and organise the elements that make a powerful speech or presentation.

Even if you are an expert in the subject matter, speechwriting is still important. Writing only the opening and conclusion of your presentation, and practising and becoming familiar with these sections can greatly enhance your impact. Then you can deliver the body of the presentation from an outline if you are comfortable doing so.

Speechwriting Prevents Mistakes and Misinterpretations

Politicians, executives and other high-profile leaders often get into trouble by saying the wrong thing. The typical defence is that the statement was ‘taken out of context’ and ‘that’s not what the speaker meant’. Many times these utterances are in interviews and other situations where the person is asked a question. But you can avoid embarrassment when delivering a speech or presentation by planning ahead and writing down what you want to say. Being prepared will reduce the chance of making a statement that can cause problems and lower your credibility as a speaker.

Yes, there will be times when you are called upon to speak without having time to prepare. But if you do have time, don’t risk making mistakes by failing to prepare, which includes planning, researching, writing and redrafting.

Speechwriting Helps You Stand Apart from Other Speakers

The speaker who has taken the time for speechwriting, or who has collaborated with a professional speechwriter, and who has practised it will be more confident than the speaker who hasn’t. When you prepare, you can include techniques that gain attention, build rapport, persuade and make your messages memorable. As a result, you will stand out as a leader and increase your influence.

Michael Gladkoff

[1] Mehrabian, A & Ferris, S 1967, ‘Inference of Attitudes from Nonverbal Communication in Two Channels’, Journal of Consulting Psychology, Volume 31, Issue 3, pp. 248–252.

[2] Mehrabian, A & Wiener, M 1967, ‘Decoding of Inconsistent Communications’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 6, Issue 1, pp. 109–114.

[3] Lapakko, D 2007, ‘Communication is 93% Nonverbal: An Urban Legend Proliferates’, Communication and Theater Association of Minnesota Journal, Volume 34, p. 5.

[4] From Mehrabian’s website: www.kaaj.com/psych/smorder.html.

[5] www.pewresearch.org/methodology/u-s-surveyresearch/questionnaire-design