The questions your speaker ought to ask you about every speaking gig

Speechwriters, what do we expect our customer to ask?

First, the speaker needs to know what the venue is like. You do a great service (perhaps the greatest) in presenting in terse prose a venue description as detailed as you can make it in as few words as you can make it. Date, time, place, AV and a short summary of what the deliverables are to be.

Second, logically, is to answer any questions about audience expectations. Sure, there are multiple perspectives in any roomful of souls. But, the meeting has a theme or a point of view, a purpose or a goal, to which this speech must speak.

At the very least, in asking, “What does the audience want from me?” the speaker should have that two-minute elevator rejoinder well articulated (by you) before reading the speech, itself.

If nothing else, present the two extreme points of view on the issue you’re addressing. Sometimes extremist thoughts will trigger strengthening commentary from the speaker for a second draft (if really needed).

This same line of thinking (triggered by your assessment) can help answer every speaker’s nightmare: Will I bore? Active verbs and punchy pull-quotes aside, so many speeches have been used to cure insomnia that speechwriters should be granted medical degrees.

But, be honest. Do you really want to be a Doctor of Dreariness? Do you want to tell your grandchildren that you didn’t mesmerize crowds, you narcotized them?

Lastly, in asking about the audience reaction, the speaker ought to wonder what in the speech will offend or challenge or irritate. If I’m not going to put them to sleep, am I going to cause them to storm the dais demanding my head?

Identify for the speaker the spunk in the speech, the lead in the pencil, the caliber of the weapon to be fired.

Then, tell in one sentence the timing of this speech. How long did it take you to recite it out loud (which you by golly had better do if you’re a pro)? How does that elapsed time match the allotted time? Despite my cautioning him, an executive sent to deliver 15 minutes of State of the Business left the speech unopened before him as he delivered what he thought was a brilliant exegesis on the industry, the government and all the ships at sea.

Unfortunately, he so offended the conference planner by blowing the morning schedule into mid-afternoon, my man learned upon returning home that he had been uninvited to four similar such meetings sponsored by related organizations in coming months.


Finally, the six questions is the obverse. Is this speech too brief?

At a critical investor relations meeting sponsored by IBM one year, my boss and the speaker to whom I was assigned ignored the 15 minutes assigned him and used just five.

Punchy, he thought. Terse and brilliant, he thought.

What the hell are we going to do with 150 financial analysts until the buses arrive for the plant tour?

So, to sum up:

  1. What is the venue?
  2. What does the audience want?
  3. How will I keep them engaged?
  4. How will I keep them from mutiny?
  5. Is this too long?
  6. Is this too short?

Knowing precise answers to these six questions, your customer will do just fine. Provided you insist on a live rehearsal. But that’s tinder for another fire.

William Shaffer is an executive communications consultant and speechwriter in Downers Grove, Ill. He formerly served as director of the American Medical Association’s Leadership Communications team. He may be reached at [email protected].

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