How to Write a Great Speech

In business and in ordinary life, we are often required to engage in public speaking. Whether you’re opening a meeting on the job, giving a toast at a wedding, or participating in a competition, you need to know how to write a quality speech. While there are numerous resources to help you tackle the often frightening task of public speaking, what do you do when it comes to actually penning the words you must pronounce? Learn how to use humor, anecdotes, quotations, and rhetorical devices to make your speech captivating.

Open with a Joke or an Anecdote

You can grab your audience’s attention by opening your speech with some humor or an interesting story. Which is more appropriate will depends upon your audience. In a solemn setting, you will of course want to avoid levity, or, if your comic delivery is not renowned, you may also want to rely on an attention-grabbing story instead.

Whether you choose a joke or an anecdote, it must tie in to the main purpose of your speech. If you can’t find a moment of levity in a real life situation or recall an appropriate story on your own, you can turn to various books that offer such ideas. 2400 Jokes to Brighten Your Speeches by Robert Orben (Wilshire Book Company, 1989, ISBN 0879804254), Winning With One Liners by Pat Williams (HCI, 2002, 075730057X), and The Friar’s Club Encyclopedia of Jokes compiled by H. Aaron Cohl (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 1997, ISBN 1884822630) are but three of many print sources for jokes. Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes by Andre Bernard and Clifton Fadiman (Little, Brown, 2000, ISBN 0316082678) provides anecdotes featuring more than 2,000 people from around the world. The anecdotes span a variety of fields, from science to the arts, and include both the comical and the tragic.

If you do choose to employ humor, be certain to avoid offending your audience. Always choose a joke that is appropriate for your audience, and be aware that jokes can occasionally fall flat. While successful jokes may earn you more accolades than anecdotes, often an anecdote is the safer course.

Using Quotations

“Though old the thought and oft expressed,” wrote James Russell Lowell, “’tis his at last who says it best.” And if someone can say it better than you, why not borrow his or her words? Ambrose Bierce cynically defined quoting as “the act of repeating erroneously the words of another.” But you can attempt to avoid misquotation by accessing a reference guide. While numerous internet websites offer access to a variety of quotations, you can best find a quote that is appropriate for your subject matter (and that is more likely to be accurate) by consulting Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (Little, Brown; 17th edition, 2002, ISBN 0316084603). This famous tome was first published in 1855 and it is updated periodically. Although still stocked with proverbs, passages, and phrases from ancient literature, the latest edition is also peppered with the words of 20th century popular culture icons, including Jerry Seinfeld and Bob Dylan. In addition to the famous Familiar Quotations, Bartlett’s boasts books on business and love quotations as well.

Remember: always give credit where credit is due. You can introduce your quotations with phrases like “As ___ said,” or “In the words of ___.” Never allow the audience to assume your borrowed words belong to you.

Employing Rhetorical Devices

The speech, like the poem or the short story, is an art form of its own. As such, it requires the use of special techniques known as rhetorical devices. Rhetorical devices, which often employ repetition, lend a cadence to your words, so that the listener is more likely to stay in tune and remember your message. Here are a handful of such devices you can use to make your speech sparkle:

antanaclasis – repeating a word, but using it in a different sense the second time; for instance: “I hear the sound of glass breaking, and I sound the alarm.”

anadiplosis – beginning a phrase with the ending of a previous phrase; for example: “Her beautiful face he could never forget, forget her brilliant eyes…”

ploce – repeating a word within a line; for instance:: “I know it, know it well…”

polyptoton – repeating words from the same grammatical root, as in “It was very tempting to attempt the climb…”.

anaphora – beginning two or more lines the same way, as did Martin Luther King in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech: “One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled . . . One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty . . . One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished . . . “

anadiplosis – beginning a phrase with the ending of the prior phrase; for example: “The time is now. Now is the time to awake.”

antimetabole – repeating a phrase in the opposite order. As Christ is quoted in the King James Bible: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

isocolon – repeating words or sounds in phrases that are the same length: “Under so much painful, so much powerful stress”

anastrophe – turning natural word order around, as in “to her I gave it” rather than “I gave it to her.” This can add emphasis when used selectively, but be careful not to sound too unnatural or stilted.

epizeuxis – repeating a word with no words in between; for instance: “never, never should you give up.”

alliteration – repeating initial consonant sounds as in “beautiful, brilliant bride”

assonance – repeating similar vowel sounds, as in “I aspire to a high title”

You certainly don’t have to memorize all of the complicated academic labels to use these rhetorical devices, but this list should give you a general idea of the many ways you can employ repetition of words, sounds, and phrases to add rhythm and emphasis to your words.

Put Your Tools to Work

Jokes, anecdotes, quotations, and rhetorical devices are essential tools for writing a great speech. But these tools are not enough by themselves. They are the implements that will inspire listeners to grasp your meaning, but you must first have a message to grasp. As Dr. Ralph Smedley has written, “Merely to make a speech is not enough. The speech must mean something, lead to something. . . Every speech should be directed to the accomplishment of some definite
purpose.” You know your purpose: simply employ these tools to communicate it to your audience.

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