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10 Tips to Help Executives Write Standing-Ovation-Worthy Speeches

Ever have one of those glorious meeting and event experiences (a “sweet spot in time”, as they say) where your stage-set is locked in, your videos are edited and approved, your speeches and supporting graphics are in the can, your Q2Q is rock-solid, pre-event speaker rehearsals have begun — and you’re still 10 days out from load-in?

Yeah, me neither …

Why is that? I mean, hotels have managed to successfully wrangle meeting planners such that room blocks and menu selections must be complete a week or two before a program kicks off. Ground transportation companies require a manifest several days out, too. Why can’t the same be done with some of the inside-the-ballroom aspects of a corporate meeting or event?

In a word, it’s nerves.

In two words, it’s nerves and focus (or a lack thereof).

For the sake of today’s topic, let’s zero in on speech writing and script writing, whether it’s for a major product launch, a sales banquet, a leadership conference, or even a smallish gathering that still requires writing. Regardless of forum, the 11th-hour rush to change this word, move that paragraph, update these numbers, or go-for-broke and blow up the entire overarching theme of a presentation the night before seems ever-present.

It’s the bane of existence for speech writers, producers, graphic artists (and presenters, as a matter of fact). And in the end, the audience, too. It happens all the time in every industry, it seems.
Draft 2 = Draft 16. Huh ..?

I once worked with a Fortune 100 company in Atlanta that needed a pivotal speech written for a senior executive who had just joined the company from a competitor and was scheduled to appear before 500 members of the company’s franchise system for the first time as part of a huge program in Beverly Hills. Needless to say, he was nervous. Very nervous.

My speech writer and speaker met and re-met. Wrote and re-wrote. And revised then re-revised over the course of several weeks until they’d become numb to the whole point of the speech, and the key messages seemed so convoluted and overbaked that they zig-zagged about like a motorboat without a captain.

Once onsite in Beverly Hills, after staying up all night working on the latest (and mercifully, final) version of the speech, my writer delivered the file to the exec’s hotel room at 6:30AM – less than two hours before the Opening Session would begin. The speech writer was whipped, the graphics folks were in a frenzy, and the producer would’ve torn his hair out if he’d had any. Mentally, the presenter wasn’t much better.

After the speech had been delivered (quite well to a very receptive audience, in spite of all) and the program had wrapped up, we did a debrief to see how my speech writer could’ve gotten from Point A (initial input meeting) to Point B (final approval) in a more time/energy/brain-cell-efficient manner.

Amazingly, Draft 16 (yes, 16, that’s not a typo) looked about 95% similar to Draft 2 that had been written and reviewed 2-3 weeks earlier!

So, what happened?

Nerves. Those maddening, twitchy, keep-ya-awake-at-night things that heap havoc on top of the already unavoidable, on-the-fly changes and revisions that every program experiences, (regardless of how well you’ve planned, designed and produced, content-wise and logistically). It’s critically important for presenters to understand the difference between being a little nervous before taking the stage and being justifiably anxious because they haven’t yet arrived at the point of focus and clarity as to what needs to be said (or not said) – especially when time is getting tight.

I’m not speaking of last-minute performance numbers that need to be updated, or Sales Incentive winners decided days before a program, I’m talking about the storytelling narrative that can be crafted anytime following the initial input meeting where key messaging and calls-to-action are identified.

Here are 10 tips on how to avoid wasted time, energy and resources as you help your corporate executives write speeches truly worthy of a standing ovation:

  1. Hire a speech writer expert in discovery, interviewing, and researching who knows how to deftly and diplomatically get a crazy-busy executive (who already has a bucket-load of pressing priorities to tend to) to slow down long enough to provide quality input and direction in a limited amount of time. Your speech writer also needs to have a keen ability to quickly sense an individual’s speaking style and tonality.
  2. Clearly lay out the linear, chronological steps necessary for a smooth journey to a finished, standing-ovation-worthy speech or script. These steps include:
    • Initial content planning/input meeting (speech writer, presenter and other key stakeholders)
    • Development of a speech outline or flow, based on Step A (including overarching theme, supporting evidence, necessary changes in audience behavior, call-to-action, a list of any missing or outstanding info, and media suggestions to more powerfully engage the audience and bring the words to life, visually)
    • Revisions and final approval of the outline/flow (including stage direction, if possible, so the presenter gets a true sense of how the presentation will open, progress and close)
    • Managing the process of revised drafts, whether it’s scheduling additional sit-down sessions between speech writer and presenter, conference calls, utilizing a “Track Changes”-type feature in the word-processing software, or old-fashioned, marked-up hard copy. Whatever works best for the presenter, works best for all.
  3. Set a deadline! And stick to it unless there’s a zombie apocalypse or some other massively huge circumstance that makes midnight-hour, ripple-causing changes unavoidable. And set that deadline far enough out from your program so your eager and talented graphic artists can add the artistic flair and brilliance they bring to the team. Your producer, show techs, and whomever is calling the show will also thank you. Finally, your presenter will have ample time to rehearse before arriving onsite, and may also get a great night’s sleep on Showtime Eve knowing they’ve mastered the content. If at all possible, I recommend establishing a final content deadline seven days out from your Opening General Session.
  4. Avoid hiring PR or advertising agencies to do your speech writing or script writing. The world of PR/ad writing is significantly different from the world of live presentation and production. You wouldn’t hire a house painter to do your family portrait (though each performs their individual specialties at a high level). Same’s true for writers. Plus, agencies will generally charge you double or triple an independent writer’s fees.
  5. Hire more than one writer, if necessary. Most corporate speech writers, whether in-house or independent, can skillfully handle multiple speeches for the same program (which includes the added benefit of the right and left hands knowing what’s being said). But there comes a point where quality work slips into the abyss and becomes quantity work. Not good – for your presenter or your audience who will yawn their way to the next break.
  6. Make sure every member of the writing team is connected so they can avoid redundancy in messaging and identify opportunities for reiteration and reinforcement of key messaging delivered by another presenter.
  7. Make sure each updated version of a speech or script is distributed to all appropriate members of the project team, along with an accompanying email that calls out the major changes in the most recent draft.
  8. Don’t over-decorate the Christmas tree. There’s always a tendency for presenters to stuff 10 pounds of “stuff” into a 5-pound bag, simply because they’ve got an audience and a forum. Resist this temptation! Only deliver that info which is “mission critical” because, in the end, your attendees are only going to retain about 10% of what is said. Make sure that 10% is as pure and useful as possible.
  9. Following your event, carefully archive all speeches and scripts as reference materials for future meetings and events. Again, you’ll avoid having speakers repeat themselves unnecessarily and they’ll know how to build upon well-crafted messaging presented at a previous meeting or event.
  10. Be loyal to your speech writer and they’ll be loyal to you. If your speech writer and your presenter have found a rhythm and have worked well together, don’t upset the applecart. Familiarity and understanding between writer and speaker will help ease nerves in the speech writing process. Everyone will work more efficiently.

Jack Welch, the legendary former CEO of General Electric who increased the company’s value 4,000% during his 20-year run, recommends locking your speech and living with it seven days before it’s to be delivered. If it’s good enough for Jack, it’s good enough for me!

If you want to avoid wasting time, energy and resources in the speech writing process and help your executives deliver stand-ovation-worthy speeches, these 10 tips are invaluable.

Would love to hear your feedback, tips, and suggestions, too. Feel free to comment below.

Until next time … cheers!