About Leadership: Speaking From a Text

12/19/2011 06:33 pm ET | Updated Feb 18, 2012

'But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.'

'That government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.'

-- Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

It might appear that nothing is easier than having a speech all typed out in front of you, and getting up to read it. In fact, it is probably the most difficult way to give an effective speech.

The written word and the spoken word are very different. Just try listening to a talking book read by a professional reader, especially a non-fiction work, and think about how you concentrate on that compared to listening to a really good speaker. The difference is clear. When we are giving a good speech, we use rhetoric. Churchill and Lincoln were great practitioners of this. Just listen to some of their speeches and you will see how effectively they hook you in. But if you read this stuff in a book you would think it phony and over-inflated. By contrast, there are people who write speeches as if they were student essays, with complex sentences that could be followed by a reader but are incomprehensible to a listener.

So when you sit down to write a speech, you have to be writing for speaking, not writing for reading. You have to hear it in your own voice. We are each of us different in how we speak, how loud or how soft, how comfortable we are with flourishes and alliteration, what words or phrases we like, what makes us cringe. And this needs to be at very front of mind when writing a speech.

Now we come to a little problem. Executives often don't write their own speeches. In many companies there are individuals whose job it is to at least get the first draft, or even the final version of a speech ready. So how can you get the voice right in that situation?

Well, it is easy to see when it goes wrong. I rather see this with speeches given by Ministers in the UK Government. Ministers give a lot of speeches, and accept a lot of speaking engagements, especially in London. I have heard many speeches which have all the right points and sentiments in them, but they were written for the minister by a civil servant, and because of the press of time only looked at in the car going over from the office to the speaking location. The result: A flat delivery, sounding every bit like what it is, someone else's words being read out with insufficient preparation.

This approach can never be made to work; I don't care how talented you are. Here is what does work for a speech written by someone else: First, sit down with the speech writer a couple of weeks in advance. Talk through the points together, so that she can hear them from you in your own words. If the writer is any good, they will come prepared with ideas for talking points, and the discussion of those will sharpen what is going to be said.

Step two is to read through a draft, say a week in advance, and as you read it make changes to put in or eliminate phrases. As you are doing this, think about saying the words yourself, just as I have discussed in the essay, Speaking from Notes. Then move to a final draft.

And finally you need to make time to read through the whole thing before giving the speech, again making changes in the final draft. The whole process is one of getting it more and more into your own voice. I keep making changes to speeches I have written myself right up until the last few minutes before I have to go up to the podium. Indeed, I am often surprised about how frequently awkward wording creeps into the written speech. While I am reading through, my pen is putting in prominent commas and other punctuation to help me with my phrasing, timing and breathing.

Now for the delivery. A good speech needs to be delivered with emotion, with passion, like you actually believe what you are talking about. And I hope that you do! Otherwise it is junk, it will sound like junk, and the audience will put it in that place in their brain where they store other junk.

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