Why Write Your Speech and Not Improvise?

When asked in advance to speak or make a presentation at an event, an easy way out is to improvise. This might include having a general idea of what to say, creating an outline and then practising the speech a few times. It can work for an experienced and confident speaker, but usually the result would be much better if the speaker had taken the time to write out the words for their speech.

Businesswoman holding a printed speech at the lectern.

It simply isn’t possible to perfect your words without writing a speech on paper.  A good speech requires research to find and choose the appropriate elements, such as stories, quotations and facts. It also requires creativity in finding the best words to convey the message. This often includes redrafting your speech until it feels right. If we look at the stories of the great speeches we remember from history, we notice that they were written in advance and often redrafted many times.

In recent years there has been a rise in the idea that the words are not an important element in speeches and presentations. The misconception has been promoted by an unfortunate myth. Misinformed people will repeat it without knowing its source and what its author was really saying. The source of this myth is 1960s is a publication by Psychology Professor Albert Mehrabian who wrote that:

  • 7% of the message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in the words that are spoken
  • 38% of the message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is the way that the words are said
  • 55% of the message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in facial expression.

This has been misinterpreted over the years and is incorrectly believed to mean that in any spoken communication, including public speeches and presentations:

  • 7% of meaning is verbal — words
  • 38% of meaning vocal — how the words are said
  • 55% of meaning is in facial expression.

What Mehrabian was really writing about was the incongruence in messages pertaining to feelings and attitudes in one-on-one communication. For example, if you see a friend who says he is glad to see you, but he is frowning, 55 percent of the meaning you interpret is from his facial expression. In this case, you will most likely doubt that your friend is glad to see you. In explaining his research, Mehrabian wrote about the limitations of his findings:

Please remember that all my findings on inconsistent or redundant communications dealt with communications of feelings and attitudes. This is the realm within which they are applicable. Clearly, it is absurd to imply or suggest that the verbal portion of all communication constitutes only 7% of the message. Suppose I want to tell you that the eraser you are looking for is in the second right-hand drawer of my desk in my office. How could anyone contend that verbal part is only 7% of this message. Instead, and more accurately, the verbal part is nearly 100% of the message.

He later stated:

I am obviously uncomfortable about misquotes of my work. From the very beginning I have tried to give people the correct limitations of my findings. Unfortunately the field of self-styled ‘corporate image consultants’ or ‘leadership consultants’ has numerous practitioners with very little psychological expertise.

So the 7%, 38%, 55% concept was never meant to be applied to public speaking. Unfortunately, it has gained popularity in certain groups —including Toastmasters and Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) — so some people believe their words don’t matter very much. They incorrectly think that the correct vocal and facial expressions are the keys to conveying their message, since the words only count for 7 percent of its meaning.

But even if you still believe in 7%, 38%, 55% concept, let’s look at it from a historical perspective. When you remember the great speeches in history, do you consider the words or the voice and facial expressions of the speaker? Probably not. When we think about the message of speeches such as Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream or Winston Churchill’s We Shall Fight on the Beaches speech, we think about the words and their meanings. The speaker’s facial and vocal expressions did not account for 93 per cent of their messages.

Also, if you listen to a news or educational program on the radio or through a podcast, do you only understand 45% per cent of the message since you can’t see the presenter’s facial expressions?

The Style over Substance Trend Has Reduced the Emphasis on Speech Writing

Another possible reason for the growing focus on style over content in speeches and presentations is the advancement in the technology. In the past you would be constrained by having a microphone at a lectern, so you would have put more focus on the content. Today, it’s common for speakers to use a wireless microphone which enables them to move around the stage as they speak.

An example of this trend can be found in the annual Toastmasters Championship of Public Speaking where regional winners from around the globe compete to be named the Champion of Public Speaking. There was a time when these speeches were delivered from a lectern. Now most of them are more like dramatic presentation pieces with many gestures and lots of movement around the stage. There is nothing wrong with this development — and I’m not saying that effective body language, gestures and vocal expression are not important — but we must remember the importance of the words we use and recognize that they don’t account for only 7% of our message.

Using presentation technology can be very beneficial if the movements match the meaning or are used in the right way. But too much movement can be distracting and detract from your speech or presentation.

Writing a Speech Helps Refine Your Ideas and Apply Your Research

The steps the go into creating an effective speech — including structuring, researching, developing and organising supporting material and using powerful language — can be combined more effectively when you plan and write your presentation. The act of writing a speech can spark creativity to produce an impressive result. Delivering a speech from an outline or having general idea of what you want to say will usually not create the same result. Doing the research and thinking it through is the only way to find and organise the elements that make an effective speech or presentation.

Even if you give presentations in your area of expertise and feel you don’t need it written down, taking the time to write the opening and conclusion of your presentation will help you get better results.

Writing a Speech Helps to Prevent Mistakes and Misinterpretations

You often hear about politicians, business executives and other high-profile public speakers who get into trouble by saying the wrong thing. The typical defence is that the statement was taken out of context and it’s not what the speaker meant.

For example, in 2012 US Presidential election campaign, Obama made the following statement to an audience.

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.

What many people focused were the final two sentences. These words generated a lot of controversy and Obama’s team had to spend much time and effort trying to convince people that he wasn’t saying that people didn’t build their businesses.

In a radio interview in 2014, Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey was arguing in favour of changes to fuel taxes. He said that the proposed budget changes would affect wealthier people more because the rich drove their cars further.  He said, “Well, change to the fuel excise does exactly that; the poorest people ­either don’t have cars or actually don’t drive very far in many cases.’’ Many people were upset by this statement and the Treasurer ended up apologising for his statement.

Obama’s or Hockey’s remarks show how important it is to choose your words carefully. If you plan ahead and write them down, there’s less chance of making a statement that can cause problems and diminish your effectiveness as a speaker.

Writing a Speech Prepares You and Helps You Stand Apart from Those Who are Not Prepared

In the end it comes down to preparation. The speaker who has taken the time to write a speech and who has practised it will be more confident than the speaker who hasn’t prepared.  When you are prepared, it is much easier to earn the attention of your audience and stand out from other speakers.