Effective Speech Writing

The Importance of Theme

Man Raising Hands After Successful Speech. Ryan McVay/ Stone/ Getty Images

Writing speeches for graduation, class assignments, or other purposes consists of a lot more than finding a few inspirational quotes and possibly a funny story or two. The key to writing good speeches lies in using a theme. If you always refer back to this theme, the audience will respond positively and remember your words. This does not mean that inspirational quotes are not important. However, they should be integrated into your speech in a way that makes sense.

Choosing a Theme

The first task that a public speaker needs to focus on before they do any actual writing is the message they are trying to convey. My inspiration for this idea came from the speeches of John F. Kennedy. In his Inaugural Speech, he chose to focus on freedom. He addressed many different topics, but always came back to this idea of liberty.

When asked to be the guest speaker at a National Honor Society induction recently, I decided to focus on how an individual's daily decisions add up to reveal that person's true character. We can not cheat in the small things and expect these blemishes to never surface. When the real tests in life occur, our character will not be able to withstand the pressure because we have not chosen the harder path all along. Why did I choose this as my theme? My audience consisted of Juniors and Seniors at the top of their respective classes. They had to meet stringent requirements in the areas of scholarship, community service, leadership, and character in order to be accepted into the organization.

I wanted to leave them with one idea that might make them think twice. Read the text of the NHS speech.

How does this relate to you? First, you must decide who will make up your audience. In a graduation speech, you are addressing your fellow classmates. However, parents, grandparents, teachers and administrators will also be present.

While you will be focusing on people your age, what you say must be in line with the dignity of the ceremony itself. Remembering that, think of the ONE thought with which you want to leave your audience. Why only one idea? Mainly because if you reinforce a single point instead of focusing on a number of different ideas, your audience will have a greater tendency to remember it. A speech does not lend itself to having many themes. Stick with one really good theme, and use each point you make, your theme reinforcers, to bring that idea home.

If you would like some ideas for possible themes, look at the world around you. What are people concerned about? If you are speaking about the state of education, find one central idea like personal responsibility that you feel strongly about. Then return to that idea with each point you make. Write your individual points to reinforce your idea. To return to the graduation speech, check out these top ten themes to use when writing your speech.

Utilizing Theme Reinforcers

Theme reinforcers are simply the points that a speechwriter uses throughout his or her speech to 'reinforce' the central idea they are trying to get across. In Winston Churchill's famous commencement address to Westminster College in 1946, we find him emphasizing over and over again the need for cooperation against tyranny and war. His speech covered serious problems with which the post-war world was faced, including what he termed as the 'iron curtain' that had descended across the European continent.

Many say that this speech was the beginning of the 'cold war'. What we can learn from his address is the importance of continually reiterating one idea. The effect that this speech had on the world is almost incalculable.

On a more local note, I used the four requirements necessary to become a member of NHS as my four points. When I discussed scholarship, I returned to my idea of daily decisions and said that a student's attitude towards learning is increased positively with each personal decision to focus on the task at hand. If a student enters a class with the attitude that they want to learn what is being taught, then their efforts will shine forth in true learning. I continued in this vein for each of the other three requirements. Of course, this does not mean that throughout the speech the same words are repeated over and over. The hardest part of writing any speech is to approach the main theme from many different angles.

Wrapping it All Together

Once you've picked your theme and chosen the points you want to emphasize, putting the speech together is fairly simple. You can organize it first in outline form, remembering to return at the end of each point to the theme you are trying to get across. Numbering your points sometimes helps the audience remember where you are and how far you have left to travel before the climax of your speech.

This climax is the most important part. It should be the last paragraph, and leave everyone with something to think about. One great way to bring your ideas home is to find a quote which aptly embodies your theme. As Jean Rostand said, "Certain brief sentences are peerless in their ability to give one the feeling that nothing remains to be said."

Quotes, Resources and an Unconventional Idea

Find great quotations and other speech writing resources. The tips found on many of these pages are awesome, especially the strategies for giving the speeches themselves. There are also many unconventional ideas that can be incorporated into speeches. A great example of this occurred during a graduation speech by a Valedictorian which incorporated music throughout. She picked three different songs to represent the students' elementary, middle, and high school years and played them softly while she went through memories for the class. Her theme was a celebration of life as it was, is, and will be. She ended with a song of hope and left students with the idea that there was a lot to look forward to in the future.

Speech writing is all about knowing your audience and addressing their concerns. Leave your audience with something about which to think.

Include humor and inspirational quotes. But make sure that each of these are integrated into the whole. Study the great speeches of the past to find inspiration. The joy that you will feel when you have given a speech that has inspired people is amazing and worth the effort. Good luck!

Good Evening.

I am both honored and flattered to have been asked to speak for this wonderful occasion.

I congratulate each of you and your parents.

Your achievements in the realms of Scholarship, Leadership, Community Service, and Character are being honored here tonight by your induction into this prestigious society.

An honor such as this is a wonderful way for the school and community to recognize and celebrate the choices, and sometimes the sacrifices, you have made.

But I believe that what should make you and your parents the most proud is not the actual honor itself, but what you had to do to get it. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "The reward of a thing well done is to have done it." Any recognition is just the icing on the cake, not to be expected but definitely to be enjoyed.

However, I challenge you not to rest on your laurels but to continue to strive towards even loftier goals.

The four requirements for membership in which you have excelled: scholarship, leadership, community service, and character were not chosen at random. They are the core of a fulfilled and fulfilling life.

The most important thing to remember is that each of these characteristics are the sum of many individual decisions. They embody a positive attitude backed by purpose. The only way to achieve your purpose is to take small actions everyday. In the end, they all add up. My hope for you is that you will cultivate this attitude backed by purpose in your own life.

PAUSE

Scholarship is much more than just getting straight A's. It is a life-long love of learning. In the end it is a sum of small choices. Each time you decide you WANT to learn something, the experience will be so rewarding that the next time becomes easier.

Soon learning becomes a habit. At that point, your desire to learn makes getting A's easier while taking the focus off of grades.

The knowledge can still be hard to gain, but knowing you've mastered a difficult subject is an awesome reward. Suddenly the world around you becomes richer, full of learning opportunities.

PAUSE

Leadership is not about being elected or appointed to an office. The office does not teach someone how to be a leader. Leadership is an attitude cultivated over time.

Are you one to stand up for what you believe in and 'face the music' even when that music happens to be unpleasant? Do you have a purpose and follow that purpose to get the ends you desire? Do you have a vision? These are all questions that true leaders answer in the affirmative.
But how do you become a leader?

Each small decision you make takes you one step closer. Remember the goal is not to get power, but to get your vision and your purpose across. Leaders without visions can be likened to driving in a strange town without a road map: you are going to wind up somewhere, it just might not be in the best part of town.

PAUSE

Many see community service as a means to an end. Some might see it as a way to get service points while socializing, while others may view it as an unfortunate (and often inconvenient) necessity of high school life.

But is that true community service?

Once again true community service is an attitude. Are you doing it for the right reasons? I'm not saying there won't be Saturday mornings when you would rather sleep your heart out than paint your heart out.

What I'm talking about is that in the end, when it is all done, and you are once again well-rested, you can look back and realize that you did something worthwhile. That you helped your fellow man in some way. Remember as John Donne said, "No man is an island entire of himself."

PAUSE

Finally, character.

If there is any one thing that is evidenced by your daily choices it is your character.

I truly believe what Thomas Macaulay said, "The measure of a man's real character is what he would do if he knew he would never be found out."

What do you do when no one's around?

The teacher steps out of the room for a moment while you are taking a test after school. You know exactly where in your notes the answer to question 23 is. Do you look? Minimal chance of being caught!

The answer to this question is the key to your true character.

For while being honest and honorable when others are watching is important, being true to yourself is tantamount.

And in the end, these private day-to-day decisions will eventually reveal your true character to the world.

PAUSE

All in all, are making the tough choices worth it?

Yes.

While it would be easier to slide through life without a purpose, without a code, it would not be fulfilling. Only by setting difficult goals and achieving them can we find true self-worth.

One final thing, each person's goals are different, and what comes easy to one may be difficult for another. Therefore, do not squash others' dreams. This is a surefire way to know that you aren't working towards fulfilling your own.

In conclusion, I congratulate you for this honor. You are truly the best of the best. Enjoy yourself, and remember as Mother Teresa said, "Life is a promise; fulfill it."