Writing a speech consists of composing the central point or thesis, the main-point sentences, the introduction and conclusion, and planning effective oral style.
Since the organization of a speech is critical to the writing process, consult our organization page.
Keeping focus: The central point
The central point is the message you attempt to communicate to your audience. Keeping focus on the central point is fundamental to speech writing.
Sometimes the central point is a thesis; sometimes the central point is a hypothesis. Sometimes, there is no stated thesis or hypothesis, but there is always a central idea and purpose that keeps you and your audience focused.
The Student Resources information on purpose is useful if you’re unsure about the central point.
For an additional resource related to writing for speeches, use The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, especially the “What’s your purpose?” section.
A thesis is a concise statement of your central point, normally included in the introduction and conclusion of a speech. However, your speech doesn’t have to be an argumentative to include a thesis statement.
A purpose statement is a clear statement about the objective you hope to accomplish. Whenever you write a speech, you have a purpose statement, although the purpose statement isn’t always explicitly stated—and it can get confused with a thesis statement. For help with the differences between a thesis and a purpose statement, we recommend “Thesis and Purpose Statements” by The Writing Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
If a thesis is necessary, the thesis section of the thesis section of the written rhetoric page may help as well.
There is no formula for success, but this video covers the essentials on speech thesis sentences.
The thesis is what you argue, and the main points are how you argue it. Because they’re so intertwined, you should carefully consider the main supporting points as you write your thesis. In other words, figure out what you intend to say before you try to capture it in a thesis.
Below are a few suggestions that experienced speech writers use when writing thesis statements:
- Use a declarative sentence; not a question.
- Use a complete sentence.
- Be specific and tend to avoid generalities.
- General thesis: “We honor Elie Wiesel for his noble characteristics and his campaign against ethnic oppression.”
- Specific thesis: “We honor Elie Wiesel for his determination, consistency, and for his faithfulness to Yahweh throughout his life-long campaign against ethnic oppression.”
- Create a narrowly focused, topic idea.
- General: Foreign policies in the Middle East.
- Focused: An analysis of the ways the United States has reacted to economic changes due to the oil industry in the Middle East.
- Adapt your thesis to the audience. This includes vocabulary, length, and even topic choice.
- Example 1: If you’re speaking to elementary schoolers, it would be inappropriate to use graduate level vocabulary.
- Example 2: If you’re talking about architecture at an electrical engineering conference, use the thesis to connect the expected topic to the unexpected topic.
Here are a few high quality thesis examples (though possibly obscure topics):
- “The process the United States would go through to use a nuclear weapon can be broken down into two stages: the command from the president, and the official launch of the nuclear warhead by the crew.”
- “We honor Elie Wiesel for his determination, consistency, and for his faithfulness to Yahweh throughout his life-long campaign against ethnic oppression.”
- “Salvador Dali’s surrealist artwork can be identified through its focus on illogical scenes and exploration of the unconscious.”
For further direction, we recommend the Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL) as an extra resource.
Main supporting points
The main points support your thesis. The thesis is what you argue, the main points are how you argue it. Here are a few suggestions for writing main supporting point sentences:
- If any of your main points don’t argue in favor of the thesis, either the main point or the thesis needs to be changed.
- A main point should convey the purpose and focus of its respective section.
- Use declarative statements and complete sentences to announce main supporting points.
- Limit the number of main points for the audience’s sake. If you have more than four it will be hard for the audience to remember.
To reiterate, the main points of a speech are crafted as supporting evidence for the thesis.
If your thesis is: Typical characteristics of 1960’s Latin American fiction include non-linear narratives and magical elements.
The following would be satisfactory main point sentences:
- Magical elements often appear in 1960s Latin American fiction.
- Non-linear narratives characterize magical realism in 1960s Latin American fiction.
Additional resources related to main supporting points
- University of Hawai'i Maui Community College Speech Department: general guidelines related to main points and other supporting material.
- Calvin University—What Not to Do: a document about what not to do with speech main points.
- Lumen Learning: a variety of topics relating to main points, from how many should you have to how to highlight them as main points. Start about half way down the page at the “How Many Main Points?” section. While Lumen Learning also covers different ways to organize your main points, we recommend using our organization page first.
It will help you to prepare the introduction after preparing the main points. Just consider how challenging it is to introduce a speech if you don’t know what the main ideas of your speech are.
The introduction has two main purposes: to capture the audience’s attention and to state your thesis. Introductions also preview the speech so that the audience knows where it’s headed.
There are many ways to capture the audience’s attention: quotes, statistics, examples, a short story, a fascinating topic, a gracious mention of the event that brings you together, or even a question.
Once you have the audience’s attention, state your thesis. Stating your thesis will inform the audience of the speech’s direction and will focus their attention throughout the speech.
For tips regarding introductions, we recommend the Oral Communication Center, Hamilton College. The tips are short, helpful, and if applied, will improve your introductions.
Finally, it’s also critical throughout the introduction to establish your credibility. For this reason, your introduction should be well practiced and should allow you to communicate confidence. In addition, if you have any expertise on the subject material that you believe your audience needs to know, inform them without being snooty.
Conclusions are the final remarks your audience will hear, so they’re the part that’s most likely to be remembered. So make sure you take the time to craft a clear and memorable conclusion.
In general, a conclusion should restate your central point, though in a new way. This is important because in speeches the audience can’t reread your message; they simply have to rely on memory. Restating your central point—and, depending on what your professor wants, reviewing your main supporting points--will help your message to stick.
Another way to make your speech stick is to use the conclusion to reemphasize your purpose. For example, in a persuasive speech, call people to action. In other words, be blunt about what you want them to do. If you want them to vote, tell them how they can register. If you want them to pick up painting as a hobby, then show them where they can buy painting materials.
Try to make your conclusion memorable.
By this, we mean it’s important to carefully consider your final remark to make sure it concludes on a strong note that fits your purpose. Speakers often trail off in the end, undermining their earlier work.
As a foundational resource, we recommend the Oral Communication Center, Hamilton College.
Style refers to the way words, sentences, and groups of sentences create tone and personality.
How is speech writing different than writing a paper?
Though they share many principles (ex: the preference for active voice verbs), they have different principles of style: people perceive style differently when listening than when reading.
The differences arise because the formats are different: written word and spoken word. For an analysis of the key differences between spoken and written language, we recommend the Oral Communication Center, Hamilton College.
This handout by Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program contains fundamental public speaking tips. Luckily, it also contains an encompassing look at the basics of an eloquent oral style. Read the section titled “Writing for Speaking”; the list will be useful when creating sentences that sound better in oral rhetoric.
The following stylistic choices are particularly helpful with the spoken word:
- Brevity. Be as brief as possible. This article by Judith Kilborn (The Write Place, St. Cloud State University) provides a few ways to reduce wordiness.
- Prefer shorter sentences to longer ones. Long sentences are harder to follow.
- First person pronouns are widely accepted in speeches.
- Repetition helps the audience remember (ex: think of the repetition in King’s “I Have a Dream.” In a paper the audience can go back and reread; they can’t do that when listening to a speech, so repetition helps the audience connect ideas and follow the argument.
- The audience doesn’t have a dictionary with them; use words that are more tuned for the vernacular ear.
- Make sure you can pronounce every word you plan on using.
- Use transitions or “signposts” to announce, signal, and recap. This allows the audience to know where you’re and what to expect.
- Prefer using concrete language to abstract language.
- Abstract: There are several possible outcomes that this decision can lead to.
- Concrete: Our choice to intervene in the Middle East can lead to destabilized elections, political turmoil, and religious conflict.
- Appeal to the senses. Descriptive language makes any type of writing more interesting. Just think about it, which do you prefer:
- Dry sentence: A family member was hit by an animal.
- Descriptive sentence: Grandma got run over by a reindeer.
- The use of contractions is generally preferred in public speaking; contractions are more conversational, which tends to be preferred in public speaking. Say these two sentences aloud and you’ll agree: “I do not think that is a good idea” or “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
- Parallelism and alliteration create rhythm in a speech; use them wisely.
- Use inclusive language.
For further style advice, though not specifically for the spoken word, use our written style resource.
For further direction, please stop in the Rhetoric Center.
Additional resources and tips related to oral style
- Stand up, Speak out (University of Michigan Libraries): An extensive and comprehensive resource on effective oral communication. Pay particular attention to the following sections: “Imagery,” “Rhythm,” “Parallelism,” “Alliteration,” and “Assonance.”
- Oral Communication Center, Hamilton College: A list of phrases to avoid for various reasons in oral rhetoric.
- Oral Communication Center, Hamilton College: A list of characteristics that help make every speech successful. Warning: the article uses language to make it sound like a checklist for an A on every speech; this is not the case. However, the list is helpful nonetheless.
- Oxford Dictionaries Blog, Avoid cliches: Evoking images for an audience helps them to understand and remember your speech, but using a cliché allows the audience to listen without visualizing. A creative example of effective imagery was when on the campaign trail Bill Clinton said “I will be with you until the last dog dies.”
- Contrast, figures of speech, examples, and triads: How Winston Churchill spoke.
In the speech “Bridges should be beautiful,” Ian Firth demonstrates an awareness of oral style. For starters, his sentences are short and easy to follow. His opening is the perfect example, “The world needs bridges.”
Look at the following excerpt from Firth’s speech:
“In this case, this is in Peru. This is using grass which grows locally and is woven into ropes to build these bridges. And do you know they rebuild this every year? Because of course grass is not a durable material. So this bridge is unchanged since Inca times.”
This could’ve very well been two or three sentences in a written text, but Firth uses five short sentences. This makes him easy to follow. However, it’s not perfect. The phrase “In this case, this is in Peru,” could be shortened to simply “This is in Peru.”
At the same time, he limits the speech to three main points: bridges should be functional, safe, and beautiful. This ensures the audience won’t get lost.
Firth carefully chooses his words. He uses descriptive language to paint pictures for the audience: “Or sometimes up in the mountains, people would build these suspension bridges, often across some dizzy canyon, using a vine.” He also uses alliteration in an effective manner: “Or Robert Maillart's Salginatobel Bridge in the mountains in Switzerland—absolutely sublime.”
And he is able to easily pronounce the words he uses, even foreign phrases like “Pont Du Gard.”
Since Firth is an engineer who has designed bridges for years, this speech could’ve used highly technical language, but Firth used the vernacular to adapt to his more general audience. On occasion, when technical language was inevitable, Firth swiftly defined the technical terms.
In addition, Firth uses first person pronouns (“I firmly believe”). This makes him more conversational and personable.
This next example, a Boise State University commencement address, is more of a mixed result than Firth’s speech: it embodies both good and bad oral style.
Let’s start with what Tiara Thompson does well. In the beginning, she uses descriptive language that invokes images. The following are examples: “As my fingers fly over the keys,” and “spacebar still blinking.” She also uses parallelism, as you can clearly hear around 3:25.
However, the style can be improved (amongst other aspects of speech writing).
Towards the end of the speech, she uses more abstract language and seldomly gives examples. The speech would’ve been more effective if she kept using descriptive language and if more examples were used towards the end. Her language becomes vague and abstract when she thanks the teachers for their hard work, not recognizing any one of them individually. As an alternative, consider: how much more effective would it have been if she gave an example of a teacher working hard and afterhours to help her succeed on an assignment? After that example, she could’ve generalized it to include all the teachers at her college.
In addition, the language she uses at the end of the speech gradually becomes more and more clichéd. For example, at 5:08, she says, “make this moment last” and “we are so fortunate to be where we are.” Clichés make imagery harder, as we mentioned in the oral style section.
Though not necessarily related to oral style, this speech focuses on the speaker more than the average commencement. If she focused on something else, her audience would’ve been able to connect with her more. (What works better: a political speech with a politician rambling on about themself or one where the politician identifies with problems larger than themselves, such as a Detroit congressperson sympathizing with the victims of the Flint water crisis?)