Saving A Speaker From The Death Sentence

The professional speechwriter needs many skills, and chief among them is the ability to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse. In this post I want to share a few ideas on what to do when the first draft of a client’s speech is so impenetrable, it makes your eyes water.

It’s all too easy to find yourself overwhelmed when faced with a draft that appears to be written in Klingon. It’s a bit like the feeling of bewilderment you get as you gaze up at the night sky and experience the infinite magnitude of the universe.

The way forward is to hold your nerve and begin the task of making things better by thinking small. The key is to ignore the muddled lunacy of the whole and concentrate instead on applying semantic and stylistic first-aid to individual sentences.

Think of the sentence as the basic unit of meaning in a piece of writing. In a speech that that flows well – one that an audience finds easy to follow – every sentence expresses a complete thought. Occasionally the thought expressed is a complex one, but generally it’s a good idea to confine yourself to no more than one thought per sentence.

The alternative is the ‘Jewish Mama’ approach to sentence construction. Bloated sentences that are indigestible because they’re packed with too many ideas. The impulse may be a generous one, but it results in sentences that are as unwieldy as supermarket trolleys with wonky wheels. Here’s an example:

Thank you for inviting me to take part in the final stages of your conference because it is a real pleasure to have the opportunity to make a contribution about how to best to tackle the vitally important subject of global warming and what practical steps British industry can take to prevent the situation getting even worse than it is now.

The most obvious problem with this sentence is its great length: it’s sixty-one words long! A good rule of thumb is to avoid using more than twenty words per sentence.

A sentence is a map that reflects the shape of a thought; like any good map, it should help you find your way easily. Imagine how frustrated you’d become if you found yourself in unfamiliar territory using a map that kept doubling back on itself. The speaker who talks in obscure sentences is like a street vendor flogging dodgy maps to an unsuspecting public.

Speaking in clear, easy-to-follow sentences warms up your relationship with an audience and establishes your ethos as a trustworthy person. Recently we worked with a senior civil servant who is warm and humorous in private but struggles to convey these qualities when speaking in public. Like many public servants he is bilingual: he speaks everyday English in private; and bureaucratese in public.

We encouraged him to write in short, easy-to-follow sentences, made up of simple, non-jargonistic, concrete words. The impact on his public speaking was immediate and profound: he was transformed in an instant from a faceless bureaucrat into a warm, engaging and inspiring leader.

The qualities that make a good sentence are the same qualities that make a good speech, or presentation. If your sentences flow, so will your speech. If your sentences are clear and easy to follow, your speech will be too. The poet William Blake saw the world in a grain of sand: the macrocosm in the microsm – the whole reflected in the part. In much the same way, the good speechwriter sees the whole speech reflected in a single sentence.


  1. Hi Martin
    I love the concept of pitching this ‘muddled lunacy’ against the infinite magnitude of the universe.
    I guess by bringing sentences into meaningful, elegant form, the overarching direction of the speech also emerges. What you put forward is an interesting inversion of what we might have expected: i.e. identifying the five core points being conveyed first, then tidying them into neater sentence form.
    Recently hearing a conference keynote speech I recognised the (different) person, quite well-known to me, who had actually been the speechwriter – that’s the other art, isn’t it, how to help the speaker re-craft in their own voice, not yours.

  2. Shurely the natural language of the senior civil servant is Mandarin?

  3. Martin Shovel says

    I think I’ll ‘duck’ that question Simon, if you’ll excuse the pun!

  4. Lol, I used to write like a Jewish mama! There’s something about the intimidating task of putting words on a page that make people want to speak unintelligably. I give similar advice to my undergraduates for writing their essays. If their prose just doesn’t make sense, I tell them to pretend to sit someone down (or find a real person), and explain to them in plain english what they’re trying to say. Once they do that, it’s much easier for the message to come out.

  5. Suddenly I’m afraid my writing is going to sound written in Klingon or by a Jewish mama.
    It’s a very tough exercise, to comment in a speech writer’s blog.
    You ask yourself: “Is he going to shake his head, bewildered and gaze at the starry night, desperately searching for meaning?”
    So, here I am, looking for something funny and intelligent to add.
    But you already expressed it, Martin.
    Simply brilliant, like a bright and clear summer morning!

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