Point of View


Secrets of Speechwriting

by Noam Neusner

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, the psychologist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman explains a common behavioral phenomenon known as planning fallacy. It’s when you embark on a project with overriding optimism—but unrealistic estimates of the cost, risks, and time involved. As a result, you miss deadlines and fail to meet objectives.

This fallacy is common to complex tasks—speechwriting among them.

In many of my new engagements, clients come to me shell-shocked from a just-concluded, speechwriting process that comprised weeks of often-acrimonious meetings, dozens of drafts, and often a last-minute all-nighter from somebody close to the CEO, who somewhere along the way lost confidence in the process and hence the speech itself.

Getting a speech right is a lot of work—and may indeed require numerous drafts—but to avoid planning fallacy, I ask a few key questions at the front end:

  1. What’s your goal? As crazy as it sounds, many speechwriting exercises revolve around creating a mood at an event—the CEO is speaking to an influential audience and wants to make her or his mark. Great, I’ll say, but forget the mood. What do you want to say—and what do you want the audience to take away with them?
  2. How much time do you have? Brevity can be a powerful driver of efficiency. When you’ve got 20 minutes to speak, that’s 2,400 to 2,800 words, tops, and it doesn’t leave much room for subtext and secondary points. As a speechwriter, I love brevity—what I lose in oratory, I gain in precision and focus.
  3. Who gets to edit—and how often? The speechwriting process can create a healthy dialogue among senior staffers, but when that verbal swordplay gets expressed during the editing process, the results can be disastrous. Of course, all voices are welcome at the start, but I usually recommend limiting both the number of people involved in editing a speech and the number of times each gets to review it.
  4. What’s your hurry? I’ve turned around speeches in as little as 24 hours, but a great speech inevitably benefits from a little breathing room. Even an extra few days of noodling—and reading it out loud to my dog, Henry, just to make sure it sounds like people talk—pays off in spades.

Planning fallacy is endemic to speechwriting because people tend to think of it is as a writing challenge, when in fact it’s more of a thinking and governance challenge. Do the thinking and establish the ground rules at the outset, and the writing—to say nothing of the process—often takes care of itself.

What's Your Point?