How to write a great speech

Brian Jenner has been writing speeches since 1995 when he joined Toastmasters International – a group that helps people overcome their fear of public speaking. In 1999 he was asked to write speeches for the Chairman of BP. He went on to write speeches for weddings, funerals and sales conferences. He is the founder of the European Speechwriter Network.

What makes a good speech?

You’re all writers. You understand the mysteries of creativity. I’m going to give an off-the-wall answer. I hope you’ll understand what I’m talking about.

I like listening to people. At Toastmasters we all gave speeches to each other. I enjoyed the insights into other people’s lives. These days there are three groups of people I enjoy listening to most: rabbis, recovering alcoholics (both available on YouTube) and people who work in the funeral industry. Definitely an odd list, but I can see a pattern.


What is the pattern?

Rabbis I enjoy because they preach wisdom. Wisdom literature advises us how to live. Judaism is a very practical religion. We all have our own ‘wisdom’.


Why recovering alcoholics?

Recovering alcoholics experience a turning point. They were restless and reckless and now they’re sane and serene. There’s a story there. Part of the recovery is to tell your story – like the Ancient Mariner – to offer hope to other alcoholics. They go to a lot of meetings and get a lot of practice. Overcoming addiction is a war between yourself and your drug of choice. As with any conflict, the battle generates huge amounts of psychic energy. In a recovering alcoholic, that energy is converted into humour, psychological insight and storytelling.


And the third group?

My third group is more personal. I set up an event called the Ideal Death Show. I invited embalmers, funeral directors and celebrants to speak. I find their talks mesmerising. Because they’re talking about what connects us all, and what we’re all going to experience. When someone talks about working with the bereaved, we take notice.


What do all these three groups have in common?

Speechwriters love Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. It’s about a French soldier poet who writes love letters for someone else. He also makes amazing speeches overflowing with wit. What is the French for witty? Spirituel.

Lots of people feel uncomfortable around the word ‘spirituality’. I would say that to address our spiritual side is to appeal to our noble qualities, our sense of gratitude, our ability to learn from the past, our ability to co-operate and be selfless, as well as our ability to forgive others and forgive ourselves.


What does this have to do with writing a good speech?

Weddings, birthdays and funerals – these are transcendent moments. Times when it’s appropriate to make a speech. At these moments in our lives we yearn for humour, storytelling and higher meanings.

Where’s the spirituality in Donald Trump’s speeches?

I would say that Donald Trump’s speeches are ‘spirited’. They’re certainly not rational. In a way he’s a grotesque parody of Obama, who was definitely spiritual. Boris Johnson’s appeal has been to date his sense of humour.


So how do I apply this next time I write a speech?

Psychologist, Dr Martin Seligman, suggests a good exercise. Write a letter of about 300 words expressing your thanks to someone who had a profound influence on you – someone like a teacher. Make an appointment to see that person and read the letter out. It’s really hard not to cry when you read out the text. With this exercise in mind, sit down to write your speech.

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