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How to write speeches for the voluntary sector

The voluntary sector has a lot of ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ cards when it comes to speech content; vital causes, moving case studies and the responsibility and freedom to speak out for those they represent. We could be making so much more of them.

So here are my top 10 tips for anyone in the sector with a speech to write:


Things you'll need

  • An understanding of the nature of the speech - keynote, lecture, after-dinner etc.
  • Knowledge of how many words-per-minute the speaker covers - if in doubt, time them.
  • Case studies to illustrate your points
  • Accurate facts and figures - you can't check factual accuracy too often!
  • An agenda for the event - you don't want to duplicate earlier content but you may well want to acknowledge,challenge or refer to it
  • Ideally - a list of those who'll be in the audience

1. What's the point of the speech?

Is it to challenge? Persuade? Is it a call to arms or an appeal for unity? The essential mantra to have in your mind is: ‘What needs to be different after this speech has been given?’

Being clear about that purpose helps define the speech. I find giving a speech a title helps clarify that for me, and it also looks more eye-catching when it’s on your charity’s website.


2. A speech isn't an article.

Writing a speech is a very different science from any other type of writing. The way we speak and how we take in verbal, as opposed to written, content is different and you need to think about how to reproduce cadence.

A statement that could appear odd or abrupt in an article or op-ed can come across entirely naturally when delivered verbally. Try not to be self-conscious about this when approaching speechwriting.


3. Alliteration and the rule of three.

Using alliteration helps a phrase stick in the audience's mind and can bring an idea to life. But use it judiciously. When Obama gave his memorial speech at Tucson he used the phrase,'...we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not wounds.' He could have said,'...heals, not hurts.' but the nuance of the word 'wounds' was so much more appropriate in the context.

The rule of three is an essential piece of speechwriting kit. It can also be used with alliteration, eg. 'the paucity of their imagination, the poverty of their principles and the purity of their ignorance.' The rule of three is the same for speechwriting and for planting ornamentals - it just looks better.


4. Getting the voices right

Reproducing the voices of the people you’re writing for can be one of the trickiest things about speechwriting – they need to stand out as individuals but not at the expense of your ‘corporate’ voice.

Think about the words they use. Would they ever say 'myriad', 'spectacular' or 'horrific'? If not, don't use them.

The voluntary sector probably has as many egos in it as altruists and you may have to stand your ground and take out material the speaker has added. In my time, I’ve dumbed down references to Greek philosophers, added references to Roman Emperors and once – in the nick of time – removed a reference to Melinda Messenger.

My biggest mental block was with a wonderfully down-to-earth but verbally thuggish Policy Head. I solved it by adding a – silent – ‘Oi!’ at the start of every sentence. Worked a treat.


5. It’s not all about you

Whatever your Chair or Director believes, the key to a successful speech is the audience, not the speaker. Never assume you’ll be preaching to the converted (a real risk in the voluntary sector); you can end up appearing complacent or out of touch.

Research your audience. Visit their blogs and trade press to find out what’s on their mind. Call their membership organisations and find out their gripes. Reflecting these back in the speech, even if only implicitly, builds greater cohesion between speaker and audience than a thousand ‘I know how you feel’s’.


6. Accuracy is important – up to a point.

The voluntary sector can be quite policy heavy – with a tendency for policy and the communications’ functions to operate in silos. Policy teams write for technical audiences and the credibility of their work relies on its accuracy.

Speechwriters need to understand this but they must be the arbiters of what’s appropriate to their audience – their role is to translate information, not reproduce it.

JFK said, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ – he didn’t say, ‘Despite the fact that I am an American, I so identify and empathise with the population of Berlin that, notwithstanding the fact I wasn’t born here, I really feel as if I were one of you.’


7. Don’t stretch a metaphor until it breaks.

Writing for and about the voluntary sector is a gift to any speechwriter. It’s a sector ripe for powerful metaphors and sharp rhetoric. But don’t be tempted to chase a metaphor down a back alley.

I once read a speech on sustainability which started with a ‘taking a horse to water’ metaphor and concluded with ‘we need to get the horse to start drinking of its own accord – we cannot keep throwing water at it’. Which left me with a vision of a bewildered horse, clearly not thirsty, having buckets of water thrown at it. I’m fairly certain that’s not what the speechwriter intended…


8. Multiply your media audience.

With a minimal amount of forward planning – something the sector isn’t always fantastic at - the audience for your speech can be multiplied many times over.

Think about the ‘news’ in your speech then distil the key messages into a press release, add some of the most eye-catching or soul-stirring content (ideally no more than a couple of three line paragraphs) and send it off embargoed to the relevant trade, sector, local or national press at least the morning before it’s given. Whatever their other real or imagined sins, I’ve never once known a journalist break an embargo.



9. Sorry! Coaching's your job

Not everyone is a natural born speaker. You may be writing for someone who speaks quietly, in a monotone or incredibly hesitantly. A speechwriter's role doesn't stop when the speech is written - you need to help the person delivering it to the utmost of your ability.

Try presenting the coaching in a positive light, 'This is going to be fantastic/pivotal/fun/ a game-changer - let's go over making the most of it'.

If there's one thing the voluntary sector is good at, it's giving feedback constructively - keep at it; you WILL make a difference.


10. Read all the good speeches you can get your hands on

Jon Favreau, Churchill, Martin Luther King - even Chris Huhne. All these speeches are online. Pick up tips, polish your metaphor and practice your rhetoric - enjoy yourself.

Sush Amar is a freelance speechwriter, copywriter and communications consultant at

Further information


    Page last edited Jul 24, 2013 History

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