10 Steps to Writing a Vital Speech – Review by Alan Barker

Posted on 9 February 2013

By Fletcher Dean
Published by Vital Speeches of the Day, 2011

Fletcher Dean introduces his book as “a primer on how to write a speech”. And, as a primer, it works extremely well.

Dean knows the worlds of both political and corporate speechwriting. He takes a pragmatic view of the speechwriter’s job.

He’s not afraid to tackle the fuzzy areas: the relationship between script and notes; the fraught question of Powerpoint; and most importantly, the relationship between scriptwriters and their principals. Dean’s first command is to know the audience. What, above all, do you want them to do after listening to the speech?

Although the early chapters are somewhat checklist-heavy, Dean’s take is refreshing. At the heart of his approach is what he calls the Communication Hierarchy: five ‘communication possibilities speakers can achieve with their audiences’. At the base of the staircase is ‘Inform’; we progress through ‘Create understanding’. ‘Reinforce values’ and ‘Change attitudes’ to the ultimate purpose: ‘Elicit action’.

Dean hangs a good deal of his material on this hierarchy, although I remained uncertain by the end of the book whether this was indeed a necessary structural sequence or a typology from which a speechwriter can simply choose.

After purpose comes structure. It’s good to see Monroe’s motivational sequence given a good airing; the model’s hardly new, but it’s robust and deserves to be better known. When it comes to style, Dean once more supplements the usual advice with insight. Words should be crisp and simple, but amplification and repetition are essential tools in building the audience’s recall. Dean is good, also, on stories.

He justifies their use wisely and with ample references, and it’s typical of the book that we’re suddenly presented with a nugget of real wisdom: don’t put stories at the end of a speech, just when the audience is wanting you to wind up. The book’s packed with quotes, none more welcome than Isocrates’ famous dictum that “in all our actions as well as our thoughts speech is our guide”.

And Dean uses real speeches to good effect (though I could have done with a little less of MacArthur’s 1962 prolonged West Point oration).

He even manages to offer some new ideas on Powerpoint. I shall be checking out the Takahashi, Lessig, Monta and Kawasaki methods of slide design; and I like Dean’s suggestion to place the lectern to the left of the screen because audiences read from left to right. Nowhere is Dean’s good sense displayed more humanely than in the final chapters, outlining the actual job spec of a professional speechwriter: not merely a wordsmith, but counsellor, coach, fashion consultant and event manager.

A primer this may be, but there’s enough real wisdom here to make it a worthwhile read for the seasoned speechwriter as much as for the rookie.

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