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A Good Speech

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James L. Horton 1
A Good Speech
Writing for CEOs
James L. Horton

What is a good speech? A good speech moves an audience where a speaker
wants it to go. Style is not important nor the length nor the parts of the speech,
but results are. There are many kinds of speeches and many speakers, some
articulate and some barely able to deliver coherent sentences. Both can deliver
a good speech, as long as they focus on its purpose and strive to achieve the
purpose in the minds and hearts of an audience.
One of the more effective speeches I can recall was delivered decades ago at a
high school graduation. In my fading memory, the speaker was one of the
wealthiest of cattlemen in South Sacramento County, California, a man who
owned square miles of land on which he ran beef. This fellow came to the
podium after speeches from a number of educators, politicians and the
valedictorian. His remarks were along this line: There have been plenty of
speeches already. It’s time to hand out diplomas. And, that’s what he did to the
relief of those of us who had heard too much rhetoric already about the potential
of the graduating class.

As Aristotle wrote in 350 BC,
Rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing in any given case the
available means of persuasion. (Book 1, Part 2).
The cattleman persuaded me that his point of view was correct as he started to
call names. He understood Aristotle’s idea.
How one persuades is at the core of good speeches. Aristotle was partial to a
logical approach – a dialectic. He scorned sophists who believed emotional
appeals were all that mattered. The arousing of prejudice, pity, anger, and
similar emotions has nothing to do with the essential facts, but is merely a
personal appeal to the man who is judging the case. (Book 1, Part 1) Aristotle
would be uncomfortable with much of what passes for speaking today, as would
Plato and Cicero who held the same views. To them, speaking had a moral
component, a search for truth, that offsets showmanship.
They would recognize and be uncomfortable with orators who are good
entertainers, but not necessarily effective speakers. The measure of a good
speech is its effect on individuals comprising an audience. That is certainly true
for CEOs who almost always speak for a purpose.

James L. Horton 2
Harvard professor Edward T. Channing, Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and
Oratory from 1819 to 1851, summed rhetoric in this way:
…a body of rules derived from experience and observation, extending to all
communication by language and designed to make it efficient.
Good speeches, in other words, are efficient communications. They achieve an
end with a minimum of wasted energy. Few speeches should be entertaining for
the sole purpose of amusing an audience. Some are long because an audience
needs to be brought step-by-step to the point of persuasion. Some are short
because an audience is persuaded but needs motivation. Some are emotional
like memorials, to raise the identification of an audience with a person or event.
Most are a mix of logic and emotion to carry an audience with the speaker. A
key skill of a speaker lies in knowing where the sentiment of individuals in an
audience is at any given moment.
Content is what a speechwriter is usually concerned with when writing. But
content does not exist by itself. Content exists in a relationship between
audience and speaker. A hostile audience and a poor speaker are a disastrous
pairing, no matter the value of content nor written expression of it. It follows then
that the two most important tasks of the speechwriter, even more than creating
content to be delivered, is to understand the audience and speaker.
A speechwriter should seek answers to a number of questions about the
audience. Who are these people? What do they think, if anything, about the
topic to be discussed? What are their backgrounds and cultures? Why are they
listening to this speech? How does one reach them effectively? Sadly, it is often
difficult, even in an internet age to get satisfactory answers, so one writes a
generic speech for a generic audience. And, it sounds like it. A disciplined
speechwriter interviews members of the future audience, observes earlier
speeches given to the audience, listens to individuals’ comments and more.
When a speechwriter knows an audience, the type of speech and preparation
suggest themselves.

CEO speakers run the gamut from excellent to awful. Some are comfortable in
front of a crowd and others shrink in fear at the thought of standing alone in front
of a sea of eyes staring at them. Some believe themselves to be good speakers
when they aren’t and poor speakers when they are effective. Some know what
they want to say and some don’t.

I recall one CEO who fancied himself a philosopher and speaker and who did not
have the gift of knowing when to sit down. He was notorious for delivering
lengthy speeches that were filled with references to various thinkers to prove
tedious points late at night after long dinners to tired executives. Then, he
wanted the speeches published somewhere. (We were never successful at this.)
Another CEO was terrified for much of his career to speak in front of audiences

James L. Horton 3
but was, by all accounts, compelling in one-on-one encounters. He was best at
being himself and carrying on a conversation.

A CEO’s conviction is as important as words the CEO articulates. An audience
doesn’t just listen but looks at the whole person and what that person
communicates through expression, body movement and confidence – or lack of
it. That is why it is important to place words in a CEO’s mouth that a CEO is
likely to say in a way the CEO expresses ideas. There is no cognitive
dissonance for the CEO and none for the audience that observes the CEO. This,
however, can lead to a condition of saying the same things repeatedly. There
are CEOs who use phrases like Buddhist mantras. They say the same
statements so often that one gets bored writing them and wonders whether
audiences are bored hearing them. However, leaders, like parents, know
humans don’t hear things the first time or even the third or fourth or fifth time.
One has to say the same things over and over until individuals pattern behavior
after it. Variability is interesting, but it confuses audiences. CEOs know that
even small changes in the way they present concepts can lead to major and
unintended shifts on the part of confused employees. (Murphy’s Law applies to
speaking as it does to just about everything else.) While an audience dictates
how one delivers a speech, a speaker sets parameters of what one can and
should say to ensure an effective speech.

One can media train CEOs to help their delivery. It assists some in getting over
nerves. It improves the mechanics of others, but the make-up of some CEOs
resists anything related to effectiveness. With these CEOs, one wishes for
adequacy, not mastery. Still, it is better to work with CEOs who know they are
bad speakers when they are willing to work on delivery. They are open-minded
and less caught up in themselves and their work.

A speechwriter learns a CEO intimately and studies a CEO’s delivery and
mannerisms. Are there words and concepts the CEO dislikes? Are there sounds
the CEO cannot pronounce well? (The current President Bush is vocally
challenged by his West Texas accent and often ridiculed.) A speechwriter writes
for positive aspects of a person’s speaking style and around elements likely to
create problems.

Fantasies of developing ringing mnemonic phrases that crystallize a CEO’s
thoughts may be just that. Some CEOs have no gift for delivering mnemonic
phrases and their plodding delivery all but ruins intent and effect. If a CEO is
comfortable with a pedestrian style, that is what a speechwriter should provide –
as long as the CEO keeps the audience in tow. Such speeches might not look
good in a portfolio, but the key is whether they were effective.

In my own speechwriting, I follow one rule. Keep it short. Expose an idea,
defend it and motivate the audience quickly, then get off the stage. However,
this rule has limits. For CEOs who can indeed charm audiences, asking them to

2005, James L. Horton 4
leave the stage quickly is a disservice to the CEOs and their audiences. Winston
Churchill, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan had an orator’s gift, and they
often wrote their own speeches because they knew what worked for them. So
too did Cicero, one of the greatest orators of ancient times. (The idea that a
speaker has a writer to assist him would have horrified Cicero.)

Few CEOs are gifted writers and fewer still have time to pen speeches. Warren
Buffet of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. is one of the most widely quoted of CEOs for
his blunt but humorous style. More, however, are like a CEO I once served. He
fancied himself a writer, but he couldn’t get past commas and semicolons to the
intent of the text. He would agonize over words and sentence parts to the
distraction of his staff and those trying to get a project done. The majority of
CEOs, however, are likely to take what is given to them, make a few tweaks and
deliver the speech without thinking much about it. To use a management term,
they satisfice. They have better things to do than discuss subtleties of
communications with a speechwriter. It is up to the speechwriter to take care of
fine points before a CEO ever sees a speech.

The importance of a speech dictates preparation. Not all speeches are equal. A
CEO might need to give a ceremonial talk to a group of employees who have just
reached five years service then deliver a justification for a business strategy to
directors and shareholders. While one speech can be impromptu, jocular and
homey, the other had better be buttressed with evidence. A speechwriter may
supply material for both speeches. In the former case, the speechwriter might list
a few bullet points on an index card for the CEO. In the latter case, the
speechwriter might work for days with the CFO, the strategic planner and others
to fine-tune a document. For a busy speechwriter, it is a question of time
management, especially if the writer is serving more executives than the CEO.

How does a CEO, or speechwriter, know if a speech has hit its mark?
Surprisingly, this is not easy. Most of the time one has to listen to the audience
surreptitiously to gauge how a speech has been received. Asking an audience to
fill out surveys is practical only in a few cases. More than likely, one won’t know
whether a speech has been well received until days later. Early opinions are
often kind but not truthful. Realistic assessments filter in. In ancient times, the
result of a speech was a vote for or against the speaker or his proposal.
Feedback was instantaneous. Today, a speech is one communication among
others: It rarely decides the fate of anything. It is part of a larger act of
persuasion. One looks for feedback that indicates a positive regard for what a
CEO had to say, if not a change in behavior. Positive regard is a first step in
changing behavior.

There are rules for how to structure a good speech, but rules bend to an
audience because an audience and the final state of mind of its individuals are
what one is attempting to influence. A CEO can speak daringly to some
audiences but not to others. A CEO can be informal with some individuals but

James L. Horton 5
must be conservative with others. There is a time for ringing phrases, a time for
blunt language, a time for humor and a time for audience interaction.
There are guidelines one should consider when writing a speech. The first is to
talk to an audience’s level. For an audience that understands a topic well,
starting in media res is OK. For an audience that doesn’t understand an issue,
the old rule of “Tell them what you are going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them
what you told them,” is effective. For all audiences, showing is better than telling
because eyes have primacy over ears, but numerous and tedious PowerPoint
slides are tiring and defeat the purpose of what one is trying to do.
Showing can be telling when one writes for the ear and paints a picture of what
one is trying to say. However, this can be deadly if a speaker does not have the
skill or energy to deliver such a speech well. Studying ancient rhetoric is useful
in learning options one has in presenting and illustrating ideas, but using
rhetorical principles without judgment is dangerous. As Aristotle said, one must
have the “faculty of observing in any given case the available means of
persuasion.” The speechwriter who is unable to do that is of little value to a

Good speeches are never written in vacuums. They fit a place, time, a speaker
and audience. Few speeches or speakers ever rise above audiences they
persuade at a given moment in time. Speechwriting, therefore, is mostly a
practical craft and not one of poetry or expression. Only a few speakers are
remembered from any generation for their ability to rise above place and time
and to speak across them both. Rarely are CEOs ever called upon to do that.
# # #

James L. Horton, the founder of, has worked in PR for more than
25 years.

Click to access speakingbrochure.pdf

No matter what your topic or
purpose, every good speech has 5
main elements. If you follow these
steps you can be a successful
1.The first step is to decide on apurpose for your speech. Most ofus don’t talk unless we have a reason. Usually we want to:
• Get action or get others involved.
• Inform or give information.
• Convince or change an idea.
• Entertain or make people laugh.
Which of these four purposes describes what you would like to do?

2.The second step is to select your topic. Once you know the purpose of your speech, select the topic of your speech. Don’t let this overwhelm you! The purpose of
your speech will help you decide on a topic. For example, if you want
to inform, you might tell us about something that interests you. Ifyou want to get action or convince us to change our minds,you might talk about something
you believe in. If you want to entertain, you might tell us a funny story. Good speeches are planned. They are not accidents! Remember to decide on the purpose first. Then select a topic you like that suits your purpose.

3.The third step is to organizeyour speech. In this step you collect and organize your information. Look for different sources of information aboutyour topic. Look in library,magazines or even the computer for information. Also, talk to people who have experience with
your topic.Your speech should have a time limit. Don’t try to tell everything
you know about your topic. A good organizer uses information that supports
or helps him make his or her point. Gather more information about your topic than
you can use. This helps you make your speech stronger because you can use only the most important or interestinginformation.

4.The fourth step is to write out your speech. This very important step is one I don’t like to do either, but when I write out my speech I can time it. This is
important because it’s the only way I can tell if I have the right amount of information. I can also choose information or ideas thatbest support my topic. I like to use three ideas. Write out and time your speech so you canchoose information or ideas thatbest support your topic.

5.The fifth step is practice. When you practice you learn your speech,learn to say the words in your speech correctly, and feel more comfortable giving your speech.
Get Prepared, Get Ready and Get Relaxed. Practice being relaxed by taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly before you start to speak. This little trick
helps you look calm on the outside and feel more calm on the inside. Calm speakers aren’t born. Being calm takes practice, too.!!!! Each club member that gives a
speech will earn their 4-H Club 5 points toward the club of the year award !!!!

Competition Rules

4th grade
* Speech should be 2 to 3 minutes long
* Speech does not have to be about 4-H 5th and 6th grade
* Speech should be 3 to 5 minutes long.
* Speech should relate in some way to the members’ experiences in 4-H and/or to things learned in 4-H. 7th and 8th grade
* Speech should be 3 to 7 minutes long.
* Speech should relate in some way to the members’ experiences in 4-H and/or to things learned in4-H.5ththru 8th grade county winners are eligible to go on to the
Regional Contest.4-H Public Speaking Contest For more information contactyour 4-H

Written by Bhushan Kulkarni

February 3, 2007 at 10:40 am

Posted in Management

Tagged with ,

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