How to write your first speech

write your first speech

By Tamsen Webster, {grow} Community Member

For many, the opportunity to take the stage and give a speech is the culmination of a dream. And if you get that opportunity, you’re now faced with an imposing task: coming up with a speech!

Here’s the process I walk my clients through when they’re developing their first speech (or any speech for that matter!)

1. Describe the situation for the talk

  • What’s the event or situation for your talk? Thinking this through provides a context that makes it easier to be specific as you create your content.
  • What length do you want the talk to be? What’s the time slot you want or need to fill? This limitation establishes the amount of material you can cover. A rule of thumb: It takes 10 to 12 minutes to land a point effectively. An 18-minute TED-style talk typically provides one big idea, plus an opening and conclusion. The average 45-minute keynote lands three main points, with an opening and conclusion.
  • Who’s your ideal audience? What kind of people are they? What are their titles? What is their level of seniority? This thought exercise determines the audience’s expertise, variety of opinions, and possibly, the level of formality the audience expects from you.
  • What’s the change you want to effect through your talk? What do you want them to think or do differently because of the talk? What is the goal?

2. Refine the core of the talk

Think of your talk as a flow of five key concepts, which you’ll present in order. If you can answer these questions in a complete sentence, you’ll have the structure for your talk.

  • What’s the one thing the audience wants to achieve that your talk will ultimately address? By presenting that goal, you create desire, and desire precedes all change. The goal must be something the audience would readily agree they want, not something you have to convince them they want. This must be their goal, not the goal you desire for them.
  • What’s the underlying barrier to the audience’s goal? This is the problem your talk will solve. It makes achieving the goal personally worth it … and the pursuit of the goal a lot more interesting. The audience may or may not know they have this “real” problem, but it summarizes all the barriers they do see.
  • What’s the ONE thing your ideal audience member must understand to solve the problem? This is the core idea. The crucial concept unlocks why the problem exists and supports the change you want to propose.
  • What’s the single, high-level change the audience needs to solve the problem and achieve their goal? This is what all the actions boil down to.
  • What action, or multiple actions, can the audience take to enact the change? If you have more than five, group them into a smaller number of categories.

3. Structure the talk by stringing those five sentences together

Here’s an example of a speech about customer communications. Let’s put together the goal, problem, idea, change, and actions to structure a speech.

GOAL: “We all want to connect with the customers that matter most to us – and have the connection matter to them – but how can we achieve this when new tools and channels pop up all the time? How can we keep up with this rate of change?”

PROBLEM: “The real problem isn’t the channels – it’s what we’re putting in them. We’re not producing what people connect with.

IDEA: “You see, the ‘new realities’ of communication are really the old realities: the basics of why and how people decide to change.”

CHANGE: “So what can we do? Because people connect to meaning, we need to design our communications around that – no matter the channel.”

ACTION: “Creating meaning has three parts – substance, structure, and style – so let’s talk about how we can design our communications using all three.”

Conveniently, by stringing these core sentences together you’ve written a short description of your talk as well as a basic conclusion. Magic!

4. Fill in the details

Now that you have an effective structure, let’s connect those five ideas and smoothly move the audience from one section to the other through data, illustrations, and stories that support your points.

  • Section 1: Establishing the goal and problem. If you’ve done your homework, the audience agrees with the goal. Now fill them in on the data so they understand the problem.
  • Section 2: Presenting the idea. You’ve brought them along to the point of understanding the problem. What stories and illustrations can you provide to support your idea and help them buy into it?
  • Section 3: Laying out the action. What does the audience need to know to support the change and action required by your speech?

5. Add your personal style

Go back and identify the examples, stories, data, and metaphors you’ll use to support each of the main concepts in your presentation. Which of those might be a good way to open the talk? Look for something that frames the goal and/or problem.

While crafting your talk, it might help to write it out. Even if you never go back to the script, writing it out helps to (a) find the ideal language and (b) determine what doesn’t fit, given the time you have to present. As a guide, there are about 135 to 150 words per minute. Your total word count will give you an idea of how close you are to your allotted time.

6. Punch it up

Props, demonstrations, whiteboards/flip charts, and even sound bites can add interest and entertainment value to your talk. If you’re using slides, share only one idea per slide (which means no bullet points, unless it’s an agenda). Not every point you discuss needs a slide.

7. Rehearse … and then rehearse some more.

It’s impossible to over-rehearse. If you sound canned or as if you’ve simply memorized your talk, you haven’t rehearsed enough. Rehearse until you know what you’re saying so well that you’re relaxed and in command.

So there you have it. Are you ready to take the stage?

Tamsen Webster brings unique insight and perspective to her work as a messaging consultant, presentation coach, and speaker. She collaborates with individuals and organizations to recognize, articulate, and elevate their brand story—fostering deeper engagement with key audiences, and driving business results.

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