Tips for Writing a Keynote Speech

Woman sitting at computer writing a keynote speech.

Whether you are an experienced writer or not, writing a keynote speech is the first step in preparing for success when speaking at a conference or other important event.

The main responsibility of a keynote speaker is to set the tone for an event or conference program. So a keynote speech needs to be inspirational and should bring the audience together by creating agreement on the ideas presented and inspiring people to act. An effective keynote speech will empower the audience and motivate them. To deliver a winning keynote speech it’s important to write it out word for word  and prepare yourself for delivering the speech.

Here are some tips that may help you in writing a keynote speech.

Know your audience when writing a keynote speech

It’s important to know about your audience before you begin writing your keynote speech. If have a know who’s in the audience – such as their age range, education or professional background – then it gives you an idea on how to write a keynote speech in a way that the audience will relate to it.

While you brainstorm ideas for writing a keynote speech, ask yourself some questions such as:

  • How can I get the audience to agree to my viewpoint?
  • What words or phrases will help me achieve this?
  • What information – stories, fact, figures, quotes, etc – will be relevant and convincing?

The answers to these questions will guide you to include pertinent information when writing a keynote speech. You can then tailor your writing to match the hearts and minds of audience members.

Plan your time when writing a keynote speech

What to say and how to say it within the provided time is important. If you don’t plan your time wisely, then it’s likely you will miss some important points, include something that’s not relevant, or run out of time on the podium. So writing a keynote speech according to the time allotted is essential. A good rule of thumb is to write 100 to 150 words per minute of speech, and then practice delivering it to see how long it takes. If you are speaking faster than 150 words per minute, slow down. You are speaking too fast – which means your audience won’t be able to take in the information you are delivering.

Let’s say you have been given 30 minutes to speak. A 30-minute keynote speech can be divided into three sections; for example, the first 10 minutes can be used to introduce key points, the next 10 minutes can be used to expand on the key point, and the last 10 minutes can be used to reiterate the key points and conclude the keynote speech.

Again, each of these 10-minute sections can be further sub-divided into sessions of 2 to 3 minutes, so that you will have about 10 to 15 smaller sections in total.

Segmenting your time will also allow you to focus effectively on each sub-topic. You can write effectively on each sub-topic and then polish the content to meet the goal.

Of course, not every keynote speech has to fit this outline, but it can be helpful if you are not experienced in writing a keynote speech and need a basic formula to work with.

Add variety to your content when writing a keynote speech

Research the subject as much as you can before you begin writing a keynote speech.

One way to approach writing a keynote speech can begin with a rough draft of the main topic, along with 2 to 3 supporting topics. Then you can develop the draft by building a structure of your speech.

A good keynote speech is not just a string of words. Adding variety of content to your keynote speech will create more interest. A keynote speech without variety may bore audience members. So include statistics, humour, metaphors, real-life stories, case studies, and new ideas. If possible, show relevant videos and introduce audio content that supports your points.

Make a note of keywords/key phrases when writing a keynote speech

Writing a keynote speech emphasising keywords or key phrases will help you while you deliver the speech. Keywords can be highlighted in bold or typed with a different font colour, highlight important text and repeat key phrases for emphasis during the speech.

Rehearse and perfect your keynote speech writing

When you are done writing a keynote speech, begin rehearsing what you have written. Notice the flow of your speech. Does it sound natural? If not, rephrase words or sentences so that the speech may sound natural. If there are sentences that sound disjointed or ambiguous, you can polish your writing during the editing process.

It’s quite possible that we may miss some words while reading the speech aloud. If some words don’t fit the flow of your speech, delete them to make sentences shorter and crisper.

Make sure that the sentences are punctuated correctly. Look for full stops, exclamation points and commas. Be aware of where you want to a pause during your speech. Make a note or include some signs for those portions while you are writing a keynote speech.

While you are reading the keynote speech aloud, you will find out whether you have adequate time to speak what is written. If your reading goes above the allocated time, then you may find yourself rushing to deliver the keynote speech when delivering it live. It’s also possible that you may end up with too little content, and you may not know be able to ‘pad’ the speech on the spot to meet the allotted time. In this case, you will want to add more content when writing a keynote speech.

After you have gone through the editing process, ask yourself whether your keynote speech is powerful, informative and motivating, and, above all, whether it will connect you to your audience.

If yes, then you are all set to deliver your keynote speech.

All the points in the article are explained in more detail in my book, Speech Power: The Leader’s Guide to Creating Powerful Speeches and Presentations.

You can also find more tips on writing at the Word Nerds Writing and Editing blog.

Michael Gladkoff

Speechwriting: Why Write Your Speech or Presentation?

speechwriting

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