Reap The Lessons from a Stand-Out Speech

What elements make a great speech? Chancellor Angela Merkel hit upon more than a few when she spoke the day Germany locked down to fight the Covid-19 virus almost a year ago. Rhetoric experts responded by calling her speech the best delivered in 2020.

A panel of academics from Tubingen University described the Chancellor's address to the German people as a vividly written, well-structured model of rhetoric that “directly influenced the German population in a way that almost no other speech of the past years has done.”

Here are a few more reasons why her speech drew high praise:

Think "Proud & Productive" When Writing & Delivering Employee Recognition Speeches

Summer may be a quiet time in many workplaces, but it’s also a time of great transition. People wrap up projects before they head off on vacation. Some leave to take on new assignments. Others retire. So it’s no surprise that managers and supervisors often find themselves on the hook to write and deliver employee recognition speeches. How well they do depends on the approach they take.

A tempting path is to string together some “nice” things to say about the person and leave it at that. But, with a bit of thought and planning, a speech to honour an employee can be a more meaningful experience for both the honouree and the audience.

The place to start is by looking at the occasion as an opportunity to reinforce employee engagement. Read More...

3 Tips for Writing a Tribute Speech

This is the season when people wrap up projects, move on to new assignments and start retirement. And that means awards ceremonies, farewell parties, and, of course, tribute speeches. If you’re asked to write or deliver a tribute this summer, keep in mind that it’s an opportunity not only to praise the recipient for their achievement or service, but to inspire the people around them. Follow these three tips to make your words memorable and meaningful. Read More...

The Blackstone: Home of the "Smoke-Filled Room"

You've no doubt heard the term "smoke-filled room" before. And you can probably conjure up a picture of one in your mind, filled with insiders secretly deciding the fate of a political contest. As the tour guide on Chicago's Big Bus will tell you (and Wikipedia will confirm) the term was first used to describe the atmosphere inside the Blackstone Hotel on Michigan Avenue. While smoking inside hotels throughout North America is becoming more and more rare, a "smoke filled room" lives on as a metaphor for a secret political gathering. I wonder if the Blackstone has put a plaque on the wall? Read More...

Lift Your Speechwriting Skills To New Heights

I’m leading two speechwriting workshops back to back that will give participants the skills they need to tackle virtually any speech assignment and meet the toughest deadlines. Join me for Write Out Loud: Strategic Speechwriting Skills and Value Beyond Words: Advanced Speechwriting Skills. Read More...

Is it a bird, a plane, or....a speechwriter?

Barbie Tootle. With a name like that she has to be fun. And true to form, Barbie's TEDx Talk on speechwriting is a romp through the subject. Like a wordsmith should, she makes her point early. Barbie wants people to know that speechwriting is more than an art; it involves some magic too. And, to show she's serious, she opens a briefcase, pulls out a silver cape and puts it on with panache. Read More...

Scribbles: Capturing attitude; touching clients daily; new word needed

Set up/punchline -

What do good sentences and cartoon captions share in common? They both capture an attitude says Cody Walker, a teacher of writing at the University of Michigan. To get his students to write tight, he assigns them to enter the New Yorker magazine Cartoon Caption Contest. Read his guest essay in The Cartoon Bureau: Memorandum on humour, from the desk of Bob Mankoff.

Relationships trump all -

Communicators need to make a shift from delivering information to providing insight says Evan Solomon, host of CBC TV's Power and Politics and CBC Radio's The House. In a keynote presentation to the Canadian Public Relations Society conference, he also urged his audience to develop deep relationships with clients and stakeholders by touching them daily in some way.

A new twist on name that tune -

"We need a word for songs that weren't big hits at the time, but grew in popularity over the years e.g. Sweet Caroline & Don't Stop Believing." Tweeted by Andrew Coyne @acoyne Any ideas? Read More...

Write It to Say It Rather Than Read It

Has the written speech had its day? That question, posed at the UK Speechwriters’ Guild Conference in February, is getting a lot of attention. The debate started when Russian presentation specialist Alexei Kepterev argued that impromptu communication is more authentic and preferable to safe, dull written speeches. His remarks sparked a spirited response from other speechwriters in their blogs and even the Huffington Post. Follow the links to read posts by the always interesting Martin Shovel, Max Atkinson, Charles Crawford and Kepterev himself.

Now, I don’t agree that authenticity and written out speeches are mutually exclusive ideas. However, Alexei Kepterev’s observation that formal speech texts are often dull is spot on. And the reason why is simple: they’ve been written for the page, rather than the stage.

One of the keys to crafting a good speech is to write it to be spoken, not read. Here are three techniques for using a script to engage in conversation with your audience as opposed to merely reading them your speech. Read More...

Keep attention by mixing questions with answers

Where’s the beef?

Even if you’re too young to remember actress Clara Peller asking that question in an eighties-era TV ad, the catchphrase probably sounds familiar. “Where’s the beef?” quickly became shorthand for expressing skepticism, and as such soon graced more than a few speeches and presentations. While Clara’s line might be considered a bit hackneyed today, injecting rhetorical questions into your scripts is still a good idea. 

In the book POP! Create the Perfect Pitch, Title, and Tagline for Anything, business communicator Sam Horn writes: “Declarative sentences sit on the page. Questions engage.” The same is true when language is spoken. Audiences like to hear questions. See below for three reasons why you should ask questions and how to use them to engage, intrigue and move listeners through a speech or presentation. Read More...

Inflight refuelling & other secrets: 5 top scribes spill

What happens when speechwriters from the U.K., Europe, the U.S. and Canada gather to talk shop? A lot of cross pollination of ideas, that’s for certain. In mid-September the third annual U.K. Speechwriters’ Guild Conference took place in Bournemouth, England. I was honoured to be a speaker and lucky enough to sit in on sessions lead by some mighty impressive wordsmiths. Read the ideas shared by five keynoters below. Read More...

Tips to make your talking points fly high

Not every assignment calls for a full blown speech. Sometimes the only thing a speaker needs is a set of talking points.

What's the difference? Well, generally the script for a speech is composed of narrative i.e. full sentences, punctuation and even directions to pause. In contrast, talking points most often consist of headings, bulleted text and, in some cases, a backgrounder that contains more detail.

Talking points are a barebones treatment that call on the speaker to fill in the blanks. For that reason, they are most appropriate to speakers who are confident on the podium and who know the subject well.

The responsibility for a good delivery rests heavily on the speaker's shoulders. However, the writer can help assure success by creating talking points that are easy to expand and deliver.

Here are steps you can take to help the speaker you support wing it with panache. Read More...

Repeat words & ideas for impact

Want to compose a Twitter post? Express yourself in no more than 140 characters. Want to leave a voice mail? Spit out your thoughts in under a minute, or risk talking into thin air. Want people to listen to your elevator pitch? Then practise until you can cram your ideas into a 30 second sound bite.

The fast pace of 21st century life has us all communicating at Mach speed. So it’s far from surprising that the times have spawned a book entitled Talk Less Say More. In the pages of her book, communications consultant Connie Dieken urges readers to fight back against the distraction and attention-deficit affected world by learning to condense their thoughts into fewer words.

But how does her advice stack up when it comes to speeches? Is it possible to be too succinct on the podium? Yes, says longtime academic and speechwriting expert Jerry Tarver. According to Professor Tarver, it takes more words per square inch to get a point across in a speech than in writing. (He’s an American, so he doesn’t talk in metric.)

Repetition, which is considered redundant in memos, tweets and many other media, is important in speeches. Since listeners only hear the message, it often takes more than one mention for them to pick up the speaker’s important points. Read More...

Lessons from a movie: providing value beyond words

Speechwriters the world over are talking about the movie The King’s Speech and its insights into the relationship between a high profile speaker and the one person who was able to help him overcome a stutter.

According to the film, speech therapist Lionel Logue went to great lengths to support King George VI. Before important broadcasts, he created a “cosy” setting, opened the windows, and performed like a maestro, conducting his royal client through the script. 

Your speaker probably doesn’t need or expect you to take those steps. However, you can provide value that goes far beyond the words you write. 

Here are five things to do to help your speaker succeed. Read More...

The King's Speech

Whoever thought that a movie that, on the surface, is about someone overcoming a stammer could rivet so much attention. But people are heading to the theatre in droves to see The King's Speech.

I intend to be among them shortly. In the meantime I'm feasting on reading what other communicators have to say. Read More...

What Cirque du Soleil Can Teach Speechwriters

Cirque du Soleil combines drama, pageantry, acrobatics and live music into a thrilling treat for the senses. But mesmerized audiences are far less aware of the role communications plays in crafting the excitement on stage.

Take for instance Mystère, the Cirque du Soleil show in residence at Treasure Island in Las Vegas. During every performance, acrobats, comedians, singers and musicians create an out of this world experience for viewers. Yet underscoring the action is a solid foundation of communication designed to keep the audience engaged and focused on the magic rather than the technique.

Chances are, you won’t be able to convince your speaker to do a double back flip at the end of a speech. What you can do, however, is apply some lessons drawn from Mystère to write a better script. Read More...

Working With Word Clouds

We speechwriters don’t end up with much to show for our efforts. While the words we write may change what people think, believe or are willing to do, our only souvenir of the assignment might be a paper text, an entry on a Web site (text again), or maybe a video recording of the speaker on the podium. But have you ever asked your friends over to watch the video of a speech you wrote? Probably not…

Well there is a way to create a memento that you could hang on the wall if you were so inclined. Make a word cloud. To do that go to, follow the simple instructions and congratulate yourself on your artistry.

Wordle is the brainchild of a man who thinks outside the font. His name is Jonathan Feinberg and he developed Wordle as a means of drawing pictures with words. The tool is free and anyone can use it to make word clouds for their own use or to share with the world. Users have licence to do whatever they like with their creations: publish them on paper or online, for instance, or even emblazon them on t-shirts and mugs.

Wordle applies weight to the words in the source text. The more frequently a word occurs, the larger it appears in the word cloud. (Allowances are made for words such as ‘a’ and ‘the’ to keep things manageable.)

So, pour a speech into the hopper, wait a few seconds and then gaze upon the glory of your creation. You can tweak your efforts endlessly to change the colour, font and arrangement. Once you’re happy with the results, save the word cloud as a screen shot and treat it like an image.

Keep in mind, however, that the word clouds Wordle generates are meant to be decorative. They’re not analytical tools. Take for example a word cloud made from the speech Pierre Trudeau delivered on the eve of the 1980 Quebec Referendum. While he was firmly on the ‘no’ side of the debate and said so repeatedly, the word ‘yes’ figured prominently in the word cloud. I suspect Wordle eliminated ‘no’ as a freestanding word because it’s also a common syllable.

Despite the odd glitch, some of which can be fixed with some experimentation, Wordle is a great tool for creating interesting graphics from words. It’s fun to play with too.

Ideas for Using Word Clouds

• Illustrate a Web post of a speech
• Illustrate a newsletter or magazine article about a speech
• Illustrate a cover page for a hard copy of a speech
• Decorate your office wall
• Save in a journal where you document each speech that you write

If you can think of other ways to use them, please add a comment.

Examples of Speech Word Clouds:

The speech Pierre Trudeau gave on the eve of the Quebec Referendum 1980

Speech wordle

The speech current Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered to the
United Nations, September 23, 2010

More wordles

The speech environmentalist David Suzuki delivered in Los Angeles to the Governors’ Climate Change Summit in 2008

Another wordle

Finally: The description of my workshop Speechwriting: The Basics & Beyond (shameless self promotion)

Another wordle

Speechwriting Tips from Twitter

Twitter is a terrific resource for speechwriters. Everyday, scribes from around the world share insights, recommend books and provide links to terrific online resources. If you want to broaden your horizons, join the conversation. An easy way to start is by following me, @wendycherwinski, or the people quoted below. Read More...

Taking care of the ‘risky’ Business of humour

Adding humour to speeches and presentations is risky business. The speaker can fluff it. The audience can find it unamusing, confusing, or even worse — offensive. Whatever the negative outcome, poorly chosen or delivered humour can end up clouding the speaker’s message.

Fortunately, the opposite scenario is also highly possible. A little humour can warm up the atmosphere, make the speaker appear friendly and help listeners remember key points.

The secret of success lies in carefully choosing humour that will entertain the audience while keeping the speaker safe. Read More...

Pause & Let the Music Sink In

As practiced musicians point out: some of the music is between the notes. The same idea applies to speeches. Saying nothing here and there actually engages listener attention. It follows, then, that if you want your listeners to really hear your ideas and enjoy the experience, you should make it a habit to work in pauses.

Both speaker and listener benefit from pauses. The speaker gets a chance to rest and to look around the room to gauge attention and interest. The audience gets a chance to rest too, as well as a moment to reflect on and absorb what the speaker has to say. 

Speakers who try to cram every second with words risk coming across as anxious. That anxiety can be a distraction for listeners who may start to focus more on the speaker’s discomfort than on their ideas and opinions. Read More...

Ace Your Speech with Q&As

No one ever said speechwriting is easy; but sometimes it’s harder than it has to be. Consider this scenario: you start on a speech and quickly find yourself spinning your wheels. You simply don't have a good enough grasp of the subject to make any headway. Meanwhile, the clock keeps ticking…

You could wait for elves to come by in the night to finish the job. Then again, you could avoid this situation altogether. Before you begin a major speech, take the time to put together together a solid set of questions and answers (Q&As). 

Preparing a Q&A package is worth the effort for a number of reasons. The exercise lets you concentrate on and become familiar with each topic in isolation. When you really know your material well, it’s much easier to weave the ideas together in a narrative. And, if you run the Q&As by the client, you could get approval for much of your content long before your first speech draft is a fait accompli. Read More...

Dialogue in the Desert

The desert sun blazes down as I stand in a pen transfixed by a horse running circles around me.

She stops and starts and changes direction on my command, which I reinforce with the flick of a switch.

After five minutes or so, the pace changes. I turn my back and slowly walk away. Calmly, the horse moves toward me, signaling that she is ready to accept me as her leader.

I’m thrilled. With hardly a word from me we have had quite the conversation.

The young mare is acting on instinct, making decisions that have allowed her species to survive for thousands of years. I’m sharpening my communications skills. And while I have only moved a few steps in a tight little circle, it feels like I have worked just as hard as my equine friend.

Learning to take charge of a horse is one of many new experiences I will encounter as a student of Dialogue in the Desert. Dialogue, as veterans call it for short, is a strategic communications thinking and planning workshop designed to give participants the views and tools they need to be influential and persuasive in the workplace. It’s the first of its kind and the longest running in its field. Read More...

Anyway You Slice It…

On a recent car trip I listened to the audio version of Malcolm Gladwell’s newish book Blink and emerged at my destination with a few of leg cramps – and a broader vocabulary. Gladwell is the writer who caused a sensation with his first book, The Tipping Point. Now he has enriched our lexicon with the term thin-slicing.

Gladwell says that people who have perfected the art of thin-slicing have developed the ability to filter “the very few factors that matter from an overwhelming number of variables.” Or as a scientist might put out, they are skilled at receiving the signal and filtering out the noise. Read More...

Expert Advice: How Not to Step in It

You can’t always tell a book by a cover – or by it’s title for that matter. And that explains why Jacked Up is such a surprise. It’s actually a book about speeches and presentations. But rather than providing a step-by-step guide, its advice runs along the lines of how not to step in it.

The subtitle explains author Bill Lane’s motivation for writing his tome. Jacked Up is The Inside Story about How Jack Welch Talked GE into Becoming the World’s Greatest Company. Lane wrote it to capitalize on his experience working closely with the larger-than-life Welch. For 20 years while Welch ran GE, Lane ran the uber-CEO’s executive communications.


Bringing Oral History to Life

Are we continuing the shift that started with radio and television to becoming a more oral communication-based society? That may be the case as we increase our use of technology to access intellectual content. Take for example the great speeches of the last century. Until recently, they were largely locked in history books. Today, many of them are available in either audio or visual form on the Internet. And improved accessibility is spawning a new pastime – watching and listening to the most influential speeches and presentations of the recent past.

A good source of recorded presentations is TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design. It started out in 1984 as a conference bringing together top thinkers in its three areas of focus. Today, TED puts the best of its talks and performances on the Internet, for free. So, events that were once open only to the elite who could afford the price of admission are now available to all. I’m a TED fan, and I have plenty of company – all around the world. I’m sure the spirit of Marshall McLuhan is smiling as the TED-o-philes gather around the communal fire. Read More...

Interactive Speeches

I was speaking about speechwriting to staffers on Parliament Hill in Ottawa recently when someone asked: How do you make a speech interactive? It was the kind of question one dreams of hearing from the podium. But, honestly, I don’t remember planting it. Happily, though, I had an answer at the ready. Read More...