The Best Way for a Reporter to Cover a Speech

Watch for the Unexpected

ROANOKE, VA - Jeff Marks, president and general manager of WDBJ in Roanoke, speaks at a service to commemorate the lives of reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward. Parker and Ward were killed by Vester Lee Flanagan during a live broadcast on Aug. 26 in Moneta, Virginia. Getty Images

Covering speeches, lectures and forums – any live event that basically involves people talking - might seem easy at first. After all, you just have to stand there and take down what the person says, right?

In fact, covering speeches can be tricky for the beginner. Indeed, there are two big mistakes novice reporters make when covering a speech or lecture for the first time.

1. They don't get enough direct quotes (in fact, I've seen speech stories with no direct quotes at all.)

2. They cover the speech chronologically, writing it out in the order it occurred, like a stenographer would. That's the worst thing you can do when covering a speaking event.

So here are some tips on how to cover a speech the right way, the very first time you do it. Follow these, and you'll avoid a tongue-lashing from an angry editor.

Report Before You Go

Get as much information as you can before the speech. This initial reporting should answer such questions as: What’s the topic of the speech? What’s the background of the speaker? What’s the setting or reason for the speech? Who’s likely to be in the audience?

Write Background Copy Ahead of Time

Having done your pre-speech reporting, you can bang out some background copy for your story even before the speech begins. This is especially helpful if you’ll be writing on a tight deadline. Background material, which typically goes at the bottom of your story, includes the kind of information you gathered in your initial reporting – the background of the speaker, the reason for the speech, etc.

Take Great Notes

This goes without saying. The more thorough your notes, the more confident you’ll be when you write your story.

Get The “Good” Quote

Reporters often talk about getting a “good” quote from a speaker, but what do they mean? Generally, a good quote is when someone says something interesting, and says it in an interesting way.

So be sure to take down plenty of direct quotes in your notebook so you'll have plenty to choose from when you write your story.

Forget Chronology

Don’t worry about the chronology of the speech. If the most interesting thing the speaker says comes at the end of his speech, make that your lede. Likewise, if the most boring stuff comes at the start of the speech, put that at the bottom of your story – or leave it out entirely.

Get The Audience Reaction

After the speech ends, always interview a few audience members to get their reaction. This can sometimes be the most interesting part of your story.

Watch For The Unexpected

Speeches are generally planned events, but it’s the unexpected turn of events that can make them really interesting. For instance, does the speaker say something especially surprising or provocative? Does the audience have a strong reaction to something the speaker says? Does an argument ensue between the speaker and an audience member? Watch for such unplanned, unscripted moments – they can make an otherwise routine story interesting.

Get a Crowd Estimate

Every speech story should include a general estimate of how many people are in the audience. You don’t need an exact number, but there’s a big difference between an audience of 50 and one of 500.

Also, try to describe the general makeup of the audience. Are they college students? Senior citizens? Business people?