PR TECHNIQUE SPEECHWRITING: Writing a brand-building speech

Considering the idiosyncrasies of your speaker - voice, inflection, body language, etc. - is just as vital to penning an effective speech as the words.

Considering the idiosyncrasies of your speaker - voice, inflection, body language, etc. - is just as vital to penning an effective speech as the words.

Ken Askew, a freelance speechwriter who has written for former president George H. W. Bush and ex-Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca, remembers his first big job well. Tasked with writing a speech on nuclear strategy for Sen. Sam Nunn to present to the Trilateral Commission, Askew surveyed the group's stately dining hall and penned a soaring speech littered with prosaic references to the famed works of art lining its walls. Nunn flipped through it, made a few curt comments, raced to the podium, and delivered an ad-lib speech in a language understood only by crusty Pentagon insiders and hard-bitten international relations bigwigs. Askew sat stunned until, in closing, Nunn finally consulted his script and offered a brilliant metaphor, bringing the audience to its feet. "Saved by a pro, chuckles Askew, who learned the first rule of speechwriting that night: "Write their heart, not yours, and style is fine, but you gotta have substance."

Though speechwriting is more prevalent in politics than in the corporate world - a political candidate may give as many as 40 speeches a week during an election - a CEO's is every bit as vital to the corporate brand, particularly when faith in the business community is ebbing.

"If business as a brand is blemished right now, good companies like us must be out there, says UPS director of communications Steve Soltis.

Six years ago, Soltis spearheaded the development of UPS' executive communications program, which aggressively promotes top UPS execs as business leaders through appearances at national and regional business and trade events.

The program has lent structure to UPS' speechwriting operations, and has helped see it through a withering strike in 1997 and its transition to a public company in 1999. "The whole program was created for the express purpose of using senior management as a component of brand building," says Soltis. "Using them as leaders, creating the platform to express our values and strategies."

Speechwriting might seem straightforward to those trained in the use of language. It's only writing, after all, and journalists and PR pros churn out reams of text every day. But add the volatile human element, and it becomes more complicated. Each client presents a challenging raft of idiosyncrasies, including speech inflection, body language, and overall personality.

"It's one thing writing for the eye, and entirely another writing for the ear, says Eric Dittus, who writes speeches for top pharmaceutical and telecoms executives. "People who've been to J-school, or come from a PR background, have to unlearn a lot, because you're not writing a long feature article or a press release. It's a script."

Upon establishing a new client, Dittus arranges a meeting with them, and brings along a couple of tape recorders and a notepad, so he can capture their speaking style. "I tend to get hired because I get the voice, he says. He pores over video and audio tapes of unscripted appearances.

Do they speak in long or short sentences? Fast or slow? Do they have a limited vocabulary? How's their memory? Do they require much preparation time? Are they dyslexic, as are Charles Schwab and former GE chairman Jack Welch? And, of course, how difficult are they to work with? Powerful egos often require delicate finessing.

Dick Morris, the strategic svengali of the Clinton White House, found President Clinton easy enough to write for, but says Hillary Clinton's obstinacy toward unfamiliar language meant he had to recycle words, phrases, and themes collage-style from her previous speeches. "It was like Hillary's Greatest Hits, jibes Morris. Given his gift for gab, Bill, by contrast, was happy with a speech as long as it had a sample of favorite sayings.

He had a great memory, and once famously read a State of the Union address from memory when a staffer put the wrong speech into the teleprompter.

MWW Group EVP Bob Sommer found he had to write in clipped sentences for Sen. Jim Florio. "He was a fan of Earnest Hemingway-style speeches," says Sommer. "He liked short sentences you could bite off."

But more than the style of the speech, it's the substance that counts.

Corporate speechwriters caution that top execs should never directly sell the product at speaking engagements, with possible exception to analyst meetings.

Instead, a speech should be forward-looking, emphasizing the company's values and what former President Bush called "the vision thing," addressing the company's strategy and long-term outlook for the industry. Welch limited himself to just four or five big speeches per year, deliberately tying them to major strategic shifts in order to position GE as a restless, hard-charging dynamo.

A good speechwriter will look outside the room to consider multiple audiences.

Many companies incorporate speeches into their internal relations efforts, using company leaders to imbue employees with a sense of its world view.

Top-level speeches can also be packaged for the media, given some consideration to sound bites and quotes.

"I used to deliberately have anything good taken out of the speeches so that nothing else was covered but the sound bite, says Morris. "History, background, all kinds of bullshit people didn't care about, so that the sound bite really came through."

Dittus favors a more holistic tack. "You do place the sound bite, but you can't have a speech that's just a long list of sound bites. We're in the oral tradition here. A good speech is not that different from sitting on the porch and talking to someone."

Attending speeches you've written for can give valuable insight into both speaker and script, for the betterment of future appearances. Did the speaker stumble over a particular word? At what points was the audience fidgety or attentive?

Just be sure to dot your 'i's and cross your 't's beforehand. Askew cringes as he recalls the performances of a favorite client, former Chrysler president Bob Lutz, "who had a terrifying habit of stopping mid-speech to announce he had found a spelling error in his podium copy, before uncapping his pen, and correcting the offending typo with relish.


1. Do write with the speaker's voice, incorporating their ideas, tone, cadence, vocabulary, and thought process

2. Do use active verbs, big ideas, and sensual language to present the speaker as a passionate, compelling leader

3. Do plan for how the speech might be used after it is delivered, and make transcripts and recordings available to media

1. Don't write for the eye. Avoid monotone scripts that read like press releases. Good speeches are a theatrical form of storytelling

2. Don't directly sell the product. Instead, emphasize the company's values and strategic vision of how it will go forward

3. Don't weigh down your prose with tired cliches like 'synergy,' 'paradigm,' and 'bottom line'.

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