Speechwriting tips from a speechwriting expert
We write our fair share of speeches, but Rick Kotick, Head of Competitive Intelligence, RBC Global Asset Management, writes more. He speaks at least twice a month to investment advisors and mutual fund wholesalers across the RBC network, MBA students at York University’s Schulich School of Business and members of the Junior Achievers of Central Ontario. And he’s a Toastmaster. He sat down to talk to us about his process, managing stage fright and how he overcomes what he thinks is the hardest part of speech writing.
Re:word (RW): Thanks for taking the time to chat with us.
Rick Kotick (RK): It’s my pleasure.
RW: First off, how long are your speeches generally?
RK: My presentations to advisors are generally 20 to 30 minutes with Q&A at the end. The workshops are 90 minutes and when I give speeches at my local Toastmasters club, they are 5 to 7 minutes long.
RW: What’s your research process like? Where do you go for content and inspiration?
RK: Online sources are my first port of call. As part of my job, I also regularly read industry research reports on market trends. In general, you can get inspiration on content from anywhere. YouTube videos, chats with friends and family, etc.
RW: So once you have your angle and your information, where do you generally begin the speechwriting process? Do you go sequentially or do you sometimes start in the middle or the end?
RK: I’m sure everyone’s different but I’ve found that the best way for me to write a speech is by creating on outline first. It helps me organize my ideas, set the material in a logical form and shows me the relationships among ideas.
Once I have the outline, I list the key points, arrange them in order and expand on each one. Then I develop the intro and the close. Once you have a well-structured outline, with key points listed in a logical order, you’ve got 80 percent of your speech already written. The introduction and conclusion should flow naturally after that.
RW: Do you have people look at your speeches before you give them? If so, who?
RK: I practise my speech in front of friends, colleagues and/or family members. I’m fortunate enough to have people I trust and whose feedback I value. There’s no such thing as a perfect speech so I try to incorporate their feedback before I go “live.”
RW: Interesting that you say there’s no such thing as a perfect speech. But some must be better than others. How do you know when it’s killer?
RK: I never know until after I deliver it. People aren’t shy about giving you their feedback or sharing their views on your topic. During your speech, though, you can tell if your audience is engaged and listening to your every word. That’s a pretty good indicator that you’re holding their attention and haven’t put them to sleep.
RW: Speaking of audience, is there anything specific you like to know about them as you prepare?
RK: Other than the basic demographic information (age, male/female ratio, occupation and education), I like to know things like political orientation and what they generally like to do for fun. It helps me weave in some anecdotes I can use to connect with them.
I also like to know what they know already so I don’t waste their time. That’s probably the worst thing you can do in a speech. Especially these days when it’s so easy to lose people’s attention to their phones.
RW: Well, you’re clearly doing something right, given the profile you have. Is there something notable you’ve learned over the past few years on the speaking tour?
RK: It seems intuitive but practice makes perfect. It’s exceedingly rare to find someone who can wing a speech or prepare it the night before and pull it off with ease. Effective verbal communication is rare yet essential in any line of work.
I’ve also learned that soft skills are a differentiator. Many people have the right mix of technical skills and education but they can’t effectively convey their ideas to a general audience. The best way to set yourself apart is with the ability to communicate smoothly, succinctly and effectively.
RW: Does the practice and prep help you get over stage fright?
RK: I’ll let you in on a little secret. Anyone who tells you they don’t battle their nerves before giving a speech is lying. I’ve read about and researched famous orators, stand-up comedians, politicians and musicians and the one thing they all have in common is a feeling of nervousness before they perform. Having butterflies before giving a speech is not a bad thing. Everyone has them. But making those butterflies fly in formation can help you harness your nervous energy.
RW: Speaking of nerves, what’s the hardest part of speech writing in your opinion?
RK: Getting started is without a doubt the biggest obstacle for many people. But using a simple structure like an outline can get you over that inertia. The outline is also a way to beat the procrastination bug ¾ and that’s something that every speaker battles with, no matter how much experience they have.
RW: We’d be remiss if we didn’t ask you this one last question: does having a well-written speech make giving the speech easier?
RK: It’s not what you say but how you say it. Delivery will determine how good your speech is. One study on communication effectiveness that I reference often states that tone of voice accounts for 38 percent of your speech effectiveness, and non-verbal cues account for another 55 percent. In other words, your spoken words only account for 7 percent. Again, it’s not what you say but how you say it.
RW: That’s not exactly the answer we were looking for.
RK: Fair enough. But I can tell you this: you can’t hide behind crummy content. If a speech isn’t well-researched, if it doesn’t have strong salient points and if it doesn’t leave the audience with something to think about, it won’t matter how well it’s delivered.