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Tag : speechwriting

By Greg Roth

Breaking down the annual holiday speech

As every speechwriter knows, holidays present a special messaging challenge. They’re a recurring appointment on your Outlook/Google calendar — they have a built-in meaning that doesn’t change, they happen every year, they run the risk of a “High B.S. factor” (ie “this year is different because [of some trumped up reason]”).

One approach to situations like these is to go personal, then go populist. It works in nearly every type of public speaking platform, from big-deal executive speeches or award ceremonies to more informal settings like wedding toasts or receptions. In this case, we were filming a simple video message to send out to the association membership via social media channels. You can look at it as a formality, but there’s no reason it can’t have true resonance and emotional appeal.

So, as a how-to, here’s a look at what I wrote in a Labor Day message for Steve Brown, the 2014 President of the National Association of Realtors, and why, in commemoration of Labor Day 2014.



Overall Format

I write all my speeches in outline or a poetry format, for a few reasons. I think it’s easier for the speaker to read and visually understand the structure and nature of the speech. By using two levels of bullet points (3 levels total), you can instantly see the relationship between phrases.

The other reason I write this way is to keep myself honest. Speeches should never have long sentences. That is the main difference between writing for the stage and writing for the page. Readers take in an average of about 250 words per minute, while listeners can only handle about 125 per minute. In this format, if I have a sentence that makes it to a second line, I better have a legitimate reason for that length.

The Setup

As summer draws to a close, another Labor Day is now upon us.
Some of you are returning from vacation while others are sending the kids back to school.
But have you thought about what this holiday really means?

As I teach in my public speaking classes, the Rule of 3 is your friend. As a speaker, you’ve got three quick sentences to get the listener’s attention and explain to them what this is about. You state the scene, add some detail, then pose the question. It has a rhythm to it that the human brain expects on a subconscious level. You know where I get that approach from? Stand-up comedy. It’s the setup/expansion/punchline format. Have you ever noticed this? Something happens and then something else? Well, here’s my thought on that.

Another thing I try to do upfront is use as many words as I could to evoke this specific time and place. In this case, you have summer, vacation, kids, school, holiday. You hear these words together and you already get a sense of where we are.

Finally, Labor Day is a doorway. So, I chose to start with a phrase that has an “in progress” feel. “As the summer…” feels a little bit like “we join this program, already in progress”. You want your message to create urgency and there’s no better way to do that than to illustrate the scarcity of time. Improv theater training tells you to “start in the middle” of a scene. Don’t worry about exposition, dive in.

The Personal Story

Hi, I’m your NAR President, Steve Brown
To me, Labor Day reminds me of my dad
Donald Brown was the hardest working person I ever knew
He had his own dairy distribution business

My dad would get up at 4:30 every morning
and work long hours to provide for our family
He gave me my first job
He taught me the value of hard work
and the value of personal relationships

To inject the personal into this message, I called Steve and asked about his father. Being elected the President of a one-million-member association is a considerable measure of success. It takes years of work, dedication, and building relationship with enough members who will vote for you. How did he become someone who would follow that path? What Steve told me about his father fit perfectly into the message of hard work. “Dairy distribution business” does not in any way sound glamorous. It fact, it sounds like Work with a capital ‘W’. It also sounds like making an honest living in the heartland (Ohio, in this case).

As a complete coincidence, my dad also got up before dawn for decades to go to work. As someone who is not a morning person, this little detail really resonated with me as a perfect indicator of dedication. Steve tells this story to honor his father, but it also tells us about Steve and his values. This isn’t necessarily a story about Steve and his father spending time together, it’s about leading by example and learning from sacrifice. But it’s still “father and son”. It’s a little bit “standing on the shoulders of giants” and a little bit Field of Dreams.

This section wraps up with another Rule of 3, as Steve talks about what his father did for him, in specific terms. First job, hard work, and relationships all translate to practically every career out there, including (especially) real estate.

The Pivot

I benefited from my dad’s work ethic
Just as this country has benefited from millions of hardworking Americans from all walks of life.

We need to wrap up Steve the Storyteller and return to Steve The President of over 1 million Realtors. This is the all-important “pivot.” It’s the moment you take the story or anecdote you just told and relate it to the broader message. The challenge here is to avoid equating Labor Day and hard work with how great Realtors are, which would be a pretty narrow view of our topic. Or, getting into unions, businesses, etc. All stuff that’s in the weeds.

Instead, let’s go big. This is like a Presidential proclamation, after all. Steve’s story was about how he benefited from his father’s work. Whose work do Realtors benefit from


As Realtors, our business wouldn’t be possible without the efforts of so many:

  • architects and designers
  • builders and carpenters
  • electricians, plumbers, painters
  • steelworkers, roofers, and drivers.

At some point in every speech I write, no matter what the length, I try to dispense with sentences altogether and go to short bursts of words like this. It’s a chance to change the pace and since we’re nearing the end of the speech, it (hopefully) bumps up the energy level.

Around the office, we started naming every occupation that would be responsible for homes and buildings. I whittled down the list to a size that was still big but not overwhelming. I played with the arrangement of the words so it made some thematic sense and would be easy to say.

This section is based on two things:

  • Hip-hop songs where they do shout-outs — nope, not kidding, that’s exactly what this is, it’s near the end, like it is in alot of rap songs.
  • And, the poetry of Carl Sandberg. He was my favorite poet in college, I have his anthology, and oh by the way not for nothing, he’s from Illinois, where NAR headquarters happens to be.

By the way, Steve nails the rhythm of this section perfectly.

Call to Action

So, this weekend, as you spend time with friends and family for the holiday
I hope you take just a moment to remember those who laid the foundation for all of us
both personally and professionally.

Have a great Labor Day.

In closing, the call to action is simply a request to give a moment of your time, mentally, to those who made that moment possible. We return to friends and family in the setup at the beginning. “Laid the foundation” might be a bit obvious, imagery-wise, but merging the personal and professional underscores that work means more than the work itself.

There you have it, a section-by-section approach to taking an occasion and building a message around it which offers a personal story with a populist appeal. I hope it helps you think about how to structure that next set of remarks you need to write or give.

My thanks to Steve Brown for giving me the chance to write this for him. He was always very kind and easy to work with and, as simple as it may seem on the surface, it’s still one of my favorite things I’ve ever written.


By Greg Roth

My friend Steve’s commencement address and how it was written

Sometime back in October, my friend, sometimes guitar player, and all-around good guy who also happens to be a pretty serious journalist, Stephen Losey, mentioned to me that we was asked to give a commencement address at his alma mater. I’ve always wanted — and still want — to give a commencement address, but in the meantime, helping someone else out is good too. So, I offered to help him put together a 15 minute speech to the graduating English department at East Carolina University.

Most importantly, you can read the final version here and it is well worth your time. Steve has broken some important stories regarding our nation’s military and is generally everything you want a good journalist to be: hardworking, patient, fair, invested in getting things right, and humble even though he is helping uphold the First Amendment everyday, in a time when that is harder than it has been in decades.

I’m thankful for the chance to get to work with him on something that contains actual perspective and wisdom. Here is a run down of how it went:

Up front, I told him to start with his three best stories. Start with your three best stories: what they mean to you and to others who may want to be like you in the future. Each one of them should have all the elements of good storytelling: characters, plot, choices, and ultimately lessons, even if in the span of only 2 minutes. Stories are the guts of good speeches, and in commencement speeches, the social proof of lessons learned and wisdom earned.

His initial draft came with this commentary:

This is very messy. The way I write is, as you can see at the bottom, I started just jotting down some potential anecdote subjects (cool stuff I’ve done) and possible points to make. The speech draft here is longer and less refined, but fundamentally not all that different from what I delivered. I experimented with some alternate phrasings in parentheses…I tend to write non-linearly, jumping from bit to bit as inspiration strikes (like, “Oh! This would be a good end!) and stitching things together later.

This is absolutely the way you should write. Expecting that you can shape a complex, interweaving set of thoughts, stories, lessons, and reflection in a linear fashion is a ridiculous standard to set. No one does that because that’s not how the mind works. Write from the inside out. The most important things you have to say will come to you quickly, but should be spread across your time.

I suggested dividing the 2500 word speech (about 15 mins worth of text) into 4 parts, to help compartmentalize your thinking about how it’s structured and put together. (I added those section headers to the final version just so you can see what I mean).

  • Opening Thoughts
  • Career Reflections
  • Stories + Advice
  • Closing Thoughts
While these sections should flow together and refer to each other seemlessly, it helps to think of about the goals of each section, because those goals are different.

I gave him a bunch of comment about language, or turns of phrase, but only as ideas that he gets to choose from. Working with a writer is great because, if you have that kind of understanding with them, everything is exploration; none of it is judgmental. Every alternate idea I offered was in service to helping him find the what and how of his overall message. As an example, I suggested this passage near the end:

“Throughout your life, as an English major, you will always be looking for people who see the world the way you do. Who have the insight you have into writing, speaking, art, politics, society, life in general. We’re a particularly breed of mind. There aren’t that many of us. You have to push your way through the MBAs, the medical students, the tech folks, to find each other. It’s hard. It can take a while. But it’s worth it.”

He didn’t use it, and that’s OK. Instead, he used this:

“It is both a calling, and a privilege, to be able to tell other people’s stories — to have them open up parts of their lives, even some of the worst and most painful parts, and trust that you’ll tell them honestly. Whatever I do, whenever I write, I hope it has a positive effect on the world in some way.”

While I like what I wrote, his is better because it’s more personal, less ambitious. You don’t always need to go for the big, sweeping ending. In the context of my his speech, my version is a bit off-key or distracting. Sometimes, it’s much better to speak directly and more concisely.

It’s worth mentioning that we sometimes think our stories aren’t good enough. Steve has the benefit of some pretty unique encounters. But, it’s important to remember that stories serve solely as a form of expression of experience and wisdom. And story that has “the moment”, a small piece of time when perspective changes, is a story worth telling.


By Greg Roth

“Page to Stage” or Writing for Presentations

(As originally published in PRSA’s Tactics)

Tonight, as the President delivers his final State of the Union speech, the craft of writing for presentation will be in the national spotlight. Of course, the SOTU isn’t the pinnacle of speechcraft by any means; it’s often just a grocery list of policy talking points and vague ideas. But, it does raise issues about what translates from the page to the stage. Having been both a speechwriter and a speaker, I’ve developed a special appreciation for both.

If you’ve got a conference, workshop, or webinar coming up, consider these 10 for-the-stage writing tips to make sure your next presentation is always your best one.

Persona grata
Everyone has a unique mix of strengths, weaknesses, experiences, and outlook. One of the hottest terms in marketing right now is “personas”, a set of characteristics that define a customer. Now flip that around, and think about your persona as a presenter. I wrote about this a few weeks ago. It doesn’t necessarily determine what you talk about, but how you talk about your expertise.

If you do slides, do them last
Your slides are not your presentation, YOU are your presentation. Your slides should be the last thing you work on, once you have your notes and content put together. Like a stand-up comedian, a good presenter can command a room without any slides at all. Slides should be in a support role: visually helpful but not visually overwhelming.

Write a 3-act drama
The structure of a movie or play can help you think about your organizing your thoughts. Act One: establish why your presentation matters (the stakes), who’s involved (the characters), and your viewpoint (as the director). Act 2: develop the plot (your thesis and main points). Act 3: tie things together to show progress or the potential for action (the resolution). Each act needs to be strong. It can’t be all backstory, unless you want to be shrugged off like a Star Wars prequel or True Detective, Season 2 (boo!).

Don’t lose the bullets
They aren’t just for brief outlines. Here’s how I write speeches and presentations. Why? To prevent overwriting. Visually, this format helps you stay concise: one sentence, one thought. It’s also easier to rearrange your thoughts as you decide to how to group information.

Rhetorical change-ups
One of the most popular writing and speaking tips is the “rule of three.” A, B, and C. This, that, and the other. It’s a good technique with great rhythm, but you shouldn’t overuse it. Some other great techniquesto illustrate a given point: comparing and contrasting, what happens if you do or if you don’t, repetition on a theme (“we can do A, we can do B, we can do C”), metaphors and similes, and open-ended questions.

Storytelling isn’t enough
In public speaking, as well as public relations, marketing, advertising, branding, it’s been drilled into our heads that stories are important. They are great tools to use, but simply telling a story isn’t enough. That story has to serve the goal of the presentation or campaign. The end of every story should transition to a “that’s why” moment with a lesson or observation.

Make stories and anecdotes portable
Every story or example should be put through an editing process called “10 30 60 90”, meaning length of time in seconds. The same story can be told in numerous ways and the time you have is one of the most important factors. A 10-second version makes a simple point, while a 90-second version is more about taking the audience on a journey of understanding or discovery. More on this in Public Speaking for Real People.

Explain data with analogies
On webinars, in workshops, and at conference, we consume massive amounts of data and research from presenters. But, the numbers lack context or are just too abstract. Find relatable ways to convey big numbers and important data. You see this done in congressional testimony: “the economic impact would be equal to the GDP of your home state, Senator.”

Cut out 25 percent
Once you’ve finished a draft of your presentation or remarks, the first thing you should do is pull out the scissors. You may have facts that you really enjoy using, but they may not fit within the framework of your content or the goals of your session. You can trim them, but keep them on stand-by for Q&A or even discussion after your presentation is over. Better to go short than go long.

Tweetable test
When preparing your remarks, try to imagine writing at least one tweet for each of your main points. By doing so, if you can have a few great turns of phrase, you increase the chances that someone is going to love what you just said. Every idea can be conveyed in 140 characters.

Breaking down the annual holiday speech
My friend Steve’s commencement address and how it was written
“Page to Stage” or Writing for Presentations