How to Write a Speech: Style

Personalize your message! Your audience will not believe a word of what you say if they can’t make out your personal opinion. Make sure you support the motion whole-heartedly, whatever it may be– but don’t get too personal! Vague references to your sick old granddad and your neighbor’s little kitten are rather implausible. Use your own experience – use your own critical mind. If you can, tell a story you’ve experienced yourself or heard from a friend.

Mind the audience! A message requires not only a sender but also a receiver: speak to the audience! Don’t just list off an endless number of facts and neatly arranged arguments, but write your speech as if you WERE ACTUALLY TALKING to the people in the debating room!

Verbs to the front! Starting your sentences with participles followed by bulky abstract nouns surrounded by hosts of adjectives and contact clauses definitely is a TABOO in public speaking! Don’t make your audience wait for verbs!

Play with emotions! As you can imagine, it’s vital to evoke emotions in whoever listens to your speech. However, I have heard lots of speakers overdo it to a degree where they sound fake and phony. Feel free to play on the judges’ heart strings a bit, but don’t play a sentimental elegy. So, when you compose a speech, don’t make it sound too emotional. Pathos and aggression are also dangerous sometimes. A small dose of passion will do.

Use repetition! Say what you want to say. Say it. Then, say what you’ve just said. However, avoid using exactly the same words. It is not at all wrong to use redundancy! Also, simply repeating the message can be extremely effective. A running gag or repeating your motto at intervals can add a lot to a speech. In a debate, you have to make the message clear. I suggest to repeat every important point three times at some point in your speech.

Advance organizers! They always come in handy: advance organizers. Phrases like “Three facts are really important here” or “There are three things you need to know” help you to organize your thoughts. In addition, the judges will always be grateful for such announcements – advance organizers make it easier to organize one’s notes. Once you’ve told the audience you’ll tackle three different issues, you’ll have to go down all the way. Don’t leave it at two, your listeners will notice.

Don’t be afraid of magic numbers! The audience is more likely to remember terms that come in twos (binomials) or in threes (tricolons). Fours will also work, but more than five becomes risky.

Obey the Law of Increasing Terms! If you want to combine two phrases, the shorter part should be the first and the longer parts should be the second and the third.

Weigh out your triplets: If you want to arrange material in triplets, make sure the different parts are of equal importance and number of syllables. The other options would be to form a climax – that is, to arrange words of increasing importance.

Visualize! Imagery is rarely used in school debates. Why? Firstly, we struggle hard to get things across in a clear and persuasive manner. Secondly, metaphors can easily slip out of a speaker’s hands and collide with other metaphors. I warmly recommend using vivid imagery – if you use it wisely. Don’t use too many different metaphors, but exploit them well.

Use rhetorical questions! They work well, usually. However, don’t pause too long after you have used a rhetorical question. There will always be someone to offer a Point of Information if you wait too long until you continue.

Keep things in order! Make sure A comes first, then B, finally C. If you start with C before you proceed to A after you’ve successfully covered B, the audience will be lost. Make short sentences. Keep to the timeline of events and to the logical order of the process you are to describe!

Make your sentences short! It’s a common mistake to make one’s sentences longer than they need to be. Make simple sentences with a maximum of one sub-clause.

Keep it simple! The longer a word is, the harder it will be to memorize it. You can process 7-9 chunks of information at a time. Instead of polysyllabic monstrosities, use short words. I don’t recommend using too many technical terms. If you really need to use those tricky words, be prepared to explain them.

Vary your words! Don’t deliver your complete speech in the same tone or jargon. Use a variety of different approaches – the introduction may be a rather emotional story, the first argument comes along with splendid reasoning, while the closing part appeals to the audience. Also, use the full range of what your voice has to offer – it may sound suggestive, creaky, breathy...!

Make silence work for you! There may be pauses in your speech that come along naturally wherever you really need to stop – to take a deep breath, to look whether the audience is still with you, to gather your thoughts, to provoke the other team to offer a PoI. Mark pauses in your manuscript: - = short, -- = regular, --- = extended.

Try sounding natural! Especially if you’re a native speaker and you have memorized your speech, it’s not advisable to sound too smooth. Especially when you cover emotional stuff, add a few short pauses where it seems appropriate. You’re not a robot who can reproduce coherent speech at a pace of 500 words per minute. But if you tell a story that is – really – touching, you know – you - you should make those – little breaks. (A bit of stuttering can also be used...!)

Be yourself! Your speech will sound authentic if you make it sound like spoken English (without sounding too slangy or vulgar). Don’t use too many phrases that add an air of formality. Especially some connecting phrases have a tendency to sound a little too formal (“notwithstanding”, “nonetheless”, “on behalf of”). Don’t use Wikipedia English, it usually sounds far too bookish for a school debate.

Six syllables per second! Some debaters have a habit of speaking at an incredible pace – to impress the judges, to confuse the other team, or simply to make their argumentation sound more reasonable. Stop! Five to six syllables per second are fine. If nobody gets your point becauseyouchatterofflikecrazy, it’s difficult to engage in a meaningful debate. Judges might also be disgruntled because they cannot outline your argumentation. You can still go up to 7 (for your passionate moments) or down to 4 syllables per second (too sound more serious). Indicate slow speaking by leaving       much        more       space        in between the words your sentences. Highlight fast speaking by-connecting-words-with-dashes.

Sing, sing, sing! Melody is very important in speaking. Don’t overuse the rising tone – you’ll sound less competent and less determined. If you want to emphasize a relevant part of your sentence, go down with your voice. You manuscript should remind you of that!

Stress! The main accent in a sentence should be on the most relevant phrase. It’s a judge’s nightmare if all the words seem equally important. It’s dangerous, not, to, stress, anything, and IT – IS – ALWAYS – RISKY – TO – STRESS – EVERYTHING. Mark important words in your manuscript! On rare occasions, you might us rhythmical patterns to sound more convincing: We ALL a-GREE the MO-tion HAS to STAND!

Let your body speak! You know the rules: Stand straight. Smile. Use palm cards with large and legible letters. Raise your chin slightly and don’t stare at individual people in the audience but let your eyes wander in the room. Oh, and don’t snicker. If you want to add extra gestures or facial expressions, you can indicate this in your manuscript.

Mind your palm cards! We still see lots of speakers with tiny palm cards full of microscopic letters. Moreover, they quickly become unreadable as soon as your hands get sweaty. Use palm cards in a user-friendly format. Reduce the text to the essence of what you will say. Use phrases rather than only key words. Number them consecutively.

 (dedicated to our victorious JL team: MG, AS, LD! - ii.ii.MMXVIII)