The Elements of Engagement – A Speechwriter’s Perspective

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Let’s face it; if your speech or presentation doesn’t engage your audience at some fundamental level, then you might as well have stayed home. Content is quickly forgotten, but engagement has a much longer shelf life. There are six elements that can influence whether or not the speech you write for your client – or for yourself – is engaging.

1. Oratory: They Can Make The Phone Book Compelling

There are some speakers whose voices and delivery are such they could read from the telephone book and have us engaged. Think of the great actors, preachers and politicians who commanded by the power their voices. The late actor Richard Burton comes to mind. Or think Martin Luther King Jr. — who through of the power of his voice brought the issue of race to his nation’s consciousness and changed a culture. Remember too that Winston Churchill rallied a nation under siege during WWII primarily through his radio broadcasts urging his people to fight on.

Unfortunately many of you, quite understandably, do not naturally have great oratorical skills. Perhaps a bit of speech coaching wouldn’t go amiss. But you can become a better orator by your choice of language, and the rhythm you find in the words and phrases you use.

2. Meeting Audience Needs and Expectations

The purpose and nature of an event can dictate – at least to some extent – the mood of the audience and their readiness to be engaged. Unless it is an internal affair, speechwriters and speakers usually have little control over this aspect of engagement. However, they do have a responsibility to gather some advance intelligence. All events — depending on their purpose — set up an expectation of some sort. So think about why people are there. Are they there because they want to be? Or were they dragged there kicking and screaming? Are they likely to be happy or sad or grumpy? Or are they likely to be cynical, with arms crossed, very much in a “convince me” frame of mind.

There are other questions you need to ask. Is the venue large or small? Is the speech being delivered inside or outside? How large will the audience be? Will you need to wear a microphone? Will the media be there? Are you speaking first, last or in the middle? The answer to all of these questions can have a huge impact on content, tone and messaging.

3. Story: They Will Lean Forward In Their Seats

There is nothing that connects one human being to another more firmly and more immediately than the power of story. People are inspired by tales of triumph and commiserate with tales of woe.

Personal stories are, by definition, authentic. For speechwriters, they are truly a gift. So, whenever you get to interview your speakers, listen for the possibility of stories. They rarely come at you straight on. For speakers – it is critical that their stories be personal and true. You will be amazed at how many of your stories will have resonance with your audience and your messaging.

4. Language: Keep It Simple Not Simplistic

Of all the elements of engagement, the matter of language is often the most compelling. Your job is to write and speak for the ear. To that end it is critical to read your drafts aloud so you can check for rhythm, tone, and cadence. Listen, too, for the silences between words and thoughts.

Avoid the passive voice and unless you or your speaker is a brilliant, dynamic orator, keep your sentences relatively short – and unless it is an insider audience, avoid jargon and acronyms

5. Humor: It’s Easier To Make Them Cry

It is much easier to make an audience cry than it is to get them to laugh. That’s because sadness is an emotion that has a single universal profile. That said, crying is usually not the optimum outcome you are looking for – unless you are burying someone.

Humor is absolutely different. What tickles the fancy of one leaves another cold. It can be very regional and very dangerous. However, if you can make them laugh, you will have them eating out of your hands. The best humor comes from personal stories that emanate from within. Self-deprecatory stories are very effective because the speaker is revealing his own humanity in a way the audience can identify with.

6. Is Your Presentation Interesting?

It is a sad fact of life that most speeches don’t pass this litmus test. There is no reason that speeches in and of themselves can’t be written in such a way that almost anyone walking in off the street might find the topic and the way it is presented, interesting. The only exception might be a highly technical speech delivered to an audience of inside experts. And in this case – the inside experts are likely to be interested in the subject matter.

So ask yourself this: Is your presentation really interesting? And would you want to sit through it?

Now here is the really great thing. You don’t need all 6 areas of engagement working for you to hook your audience. Even just one or two elements will get you there.

One last thing – regardless of how you do your presentations – from memory, using PowerPoint as a guide, or using note cards – it is critical that you write out a full draft and refine it as you go. All great speeches start out as words on a page.


Colin Moorhouse has been providing freelance speech writing services to clients for over two decades. “His” speeches have been delivered at venues all over the world. He has an online speechwriting course and he teaches the craft to corporate clients.

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