Demonstration Session

Friday, August 5, 2016

10:15am – 11:15am

Steve Silver, Senior Speechwriter for Mayor of Chicago

Learn the finer points of speechwriting from one of the best in the nation. Plus get tips for creating tweetable moments, sound bites, writing a fundraising ask, and drafting compelling email messages.

Have feedback on this session? We’d love to hear it! Submit it here.


Speechwriting is less of an art and more of a struggle. The ultimate goal of speechwriting is communication; we use speeches as tools. When writing speeches for someone else, help them by organizing the speech in a clear, consistent and compelling way.

Good Speeches…

  • Speak to a high purpose.
    • By talking to the issue that you are speaking about and elevating to a higher level, you will enrich the primary message of your speech.
  • Tell Stories.
    • Tell stories in your speech or make your speech a story. A great example of this First Lady Michelle Obama’s 2016 DNC speech.
  • Use humor
    • Comedy is useful. You can feed people information by utilizing funny lines.
  • Use simple and sublime language
    • You have the freedom to use fancier, more poetic language, but truly effective speeches are simple.

Write for a Higher Purpose

  • Build rhythms in your speeches. Create a build-up to the hard-hitting lines that will resonate with people. It works well to begin and end with pathos, allowing the simpler, factual phrases to remain in the middle of your speech. Ultimately though, the decision in speech strategy depends on the situation.
  • Say more with less.
  • Speechwriters don’t get paid by the word. You may get push back from your speaker, but you need to cull down words in speeches to be effective.
  • Feature a rhythm.
  • Identify the existing, subtle rhythm and play it up to create more compelling content for your audience.

Convey Rhythm

  • Stylization works. Italics, bold, etc. are good. It depends on the needs of your speaker, but it is very important to organize a plan for speech preparation.
  • Contain a repeatable message.
    • Ask someone to read it and then ask them to share what they would say to someone who was not there? This is a great test to see if your message is repeatable. Also, think about the headline for the speech – is it the one you would want?

Writing for Sound Bites (& Tweets)

  • Summarize your message.
  • Use your Sharpest Language
  • Pointed Challenge to Opponents
    • Think of questions to pose at them
  • Capture the mood of the moment.
    • Think of the current moments associated with your industry/cause and leverage that in your tweet
    • Don’t be tone deaf to what is happening, but use the particular moment to move the ball forward
  • Eloquent Call to Action


  • Alliteration – People remember things that are alliterative. Film and television character names are examples of this.
  • Word equations – A phrase or group of words that play off of each other. Example: “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country…”
  • Rule of Threes – Like alliteration, the brain thinks in threes. Useful for
  • Humor – helps to break through the clutter.
  • Provocative and thought provoking.

Creating Compelling CTAs

  • Messenger Matters: Who the speaker is can affect how the audiences responds to the CTAs.
  • Raise the Stakes
    • You appropriate language to fit the occasion, but recognize that putting the audience on alert can help in encouraging them to take action.
  • Repeating Outrageous Statements and Attacks
    • Note: You don’t have to specifically restate the attack that your organization received, but you should summarize it and reflect on it in a way that will be compelling to your audience.
  • Explain What Their Support Will Mean
    • Share what the audience’s action will do your the cause. Break it down in specific, tangible terms.
  • Connect to a Larger Existing Campaign
    • When you connect CTAs to a larger effort, it’s helpful and makes more ask more attainable.
  • Be Funny

Funny but Serious

  • Self-deprecation is always safe. Use it to connect with your audience without making light of the issue you’re discussing.

Speeches Worth Noting

  • Steve Jobs Commencement to Stanford (2005)
  • Lincoln’s Second Inaugural (Only 700 words)
  • MLK: Beyond Vietnam (Riverside Church, 4/4/1967)
  • Michelle Obama’s DNC Speech (2016)
  • Ronald Reagan Speech at the Brandenburg Gate (1987)

Books worth Noting

  • Lend Me Your Ears – William Sapphire
    • Anthology on a variety of speeches and occasions
  • The Hero’s Journey


Audience Member: Do these speechwriting tactics work with summarizing or releasing statements on speeches?

Answer: You want to tell the exact same story, creating an abridged version or an op-ed that includes all of the content.

Audience Member: How do you delineate between preparation and strategy for a speech and for a testimony to Congress?

Answer: Approach in the same way that you would preparing for a speech. Don’t differentiate that much as the goal of authenticity is important for both situations.

Audience Member: What is the best approach/structure for working with a person that is not used to speech preparation?

Answer: Do use large type and double-spaced text in order to ease the speech delivery learning process. Do prepare a cover page with the most important key points and sound bites in order to help create structure and hierarchy for the speech. However, it’s up to the speaker to determine the best approach determining the speechwriting process.

Audience Member: How do you help advocates tell their stories, but keep them succinct and authentic?

Answer: Write out the speech (whether you intend them to use it or not). From there, boil it down to five or six key points that they can work off of for their advocacy speech/message.

Audience Member: Did you ever have a challenge where you’re working with someone who is not a great orator? Does that alter the way that you write the speech?

Answer: Make sure that you’re conveying what they are focused on in the text – if it’s data or other items. Make sure that you practice immensely to help establish a process and speak effectively.

Audience Member: How do you prepare for interviews or other communication “presentations?”


  • Write a speech and then rework it to be natural in the particular situation. Radio/TV interviews and op-eds are great opportunities to convey this message. However, sometimes the speech environment is the best way to deliver your information.
  • It’s important to remember that you always have flexibility in the control of the speech. Always answer the questions that you wish were asked.

Audience Member: How do you prepare a speech for someone who does not want to speak/prepare?

Answer: Make them understand the consequences of getting of message right. Explain the importance of the speech environment and the opportunity to present a controlled message.

Audience Member: How do you achieve authenticity in scripted speech writing? Does this approach change the way you write?

Answer: It’s hard to be authentic on command. As a speechwriter, take the time to know them and their character to bring that into the speech. Note: Nothing brings out authenticity like facing adversity.

Audience Member: How do you write speeches?

Answer: Write out a detailed outline. Then work on framing, how you want each part of the speech to go. Finish the first frame/phrase first and then work through the rest of the speech.

Audience Member: How do you do speech preparation?

Answer: We start with a few prep sessions of reading and making notes on the content itself. This helps make the speaker comfortable with the content. Once they’re comfortable with the language, you move to podium delivery. From there you develop cadence, rhythm, projection, and tempo. Many of the decisions in speech preparation must consider experience levels.

Audience Member: What is your favorite speechwriting tip?

Answer: Always try to cull down your words. Your effectiveness as a speechwriter is evidenced in how short your speech is. Use less words.

Audience Member: How do you organize a speech program for several people?

Answer: Rule of thumb… Let your speaker or the most prestigious person on your speaking program take the higher level content. Let your lower level speakers deal with the most technical or wonky levels of content.