Speech-writing tips for high school students

Teach rhetoric and composition with these speech-writing tips for prewriting, writing, and editing.

SPEECH writing offers a rare chance for students to impact an audience in lasting, meaningful ways. Through this kind of written and oral communication, they can learn to convey truth in a world with where morals are blurred and virtues are disappearing. Thus, speech writers combine narrative, descriptive, explanatory, and persuasive skills, arranging a composition to make both logical and emotional appeals. After all, rhetoric (the art of persuasion) should engage the whole person, not just the mind or heart.

Even if your son will never enroll in a speech and debate club, encourage him to present an original speech in a group setting such as a class, family gathering, or graduation party. These speech-writing tips for students should help him get started!

The Prewriting Stage

When you write a speech, the prewriting stage represents about a third of the entire process.

  • Choose a topic you feel strongly about. If you don’t care about the subject matter, neither will your audience.
  • Evaluate your potential audience. Will you speak to a mixed group of teenagers or to a room of retirees? What are their values and interests? What kinds of music and cultural references will they relate to?
  • Understand your purpose. Are you writing a speech to entertain, inform, or persuade? If you intend to persuade, are you trying to reach a like-minded or neutral audience or an openly hostile group?
  • Research and brainstorm. Start gathering your facts and examples, and make a list of possible talking points.

The Writing Stage

Writing the first draft should consume about 20% of your time as a speech writer.

  • Develop a “hook.” You need to capture the audience’s attention at the beginning of the speech and motivate them to keep listening. A humorous story or a startling statistic may serve this purpose, depending on the type of speech you’re writing.
  • Construct a thesis. Your speech should present a clear message, with each sub-point logically leading to the final conclusion.
  • Build a relationship with the audience. Establish your credibility as a speaker by demonstrating your connection to the topic. Did a hobby, a favorite author, or a family experience lead you to choose this subject?
  • Organize your ideas. Offer a preview of what’s to come in the introduction, and be sure you follow those points in order.
  • Finish with a strong conclusion. When you reach the end of your speech, restate your thesis and tie everything back to your introduction.

The Editing Stage

The editing stage requires another third of your time as a speech writer. As you revise, check for these items:

  • Grammar. Poor writing could cause an audience to stop taking you seriously, even if your main message is solid.
  • Style. In the writing stage, you focused on substance (what to say); now you can focus on style (how to say it). Without resorting to overdone “purple prose,” you can practice writing techniques such as parallelism, repetition, alliteration, and series or lists.
  • Time. Read your speech out loud. It shouldn’t take longer than 20 minutes.
  • Sound. When you read the speech aloud, do you stumble over unnatural words and phrases? Perhaps you need to rewrite with more direct, simple language. Is your flow of thoughts easy to understand? Is your vocabulary appropriate to the audience’s age and education?
  • Appeal to the senses. Your speech should engage the imagination—not put people to sleep! Do you use figurative language to help the audience visualize concepts? Include a descriptive passage to help them hear, feel, and touch your topic. Try to include narratives that people will identify with. You don’t need too many details… just enough to make the stories ring true and help you explain your persuasive points or morals.
  • Organization. You can arrange your speech chronologically, topically, by comparison/contrast, or in some other way. Just be sure you’re consistent.
  • Politeness. Have you used appropriate language throughout? Have you written with respect for yourself and others? The best speeches display compassion and empathy, rather than tear others down.

The Pre-Performance Stage

Once you’ve written and revised your speech, it’s time to practice! Try to memorize it, and watch your speed so you don’t speak too quickly. Practice in front of a mirror so you remember to move naturally, incorporating hand/arm gestures and facial expressions. Experiment with volume, high and low pitch, and pauses (take notes about what works and what doesn’t.)

Finally, have confidence! Stage fright is part of life, but the greatest performers have learned that passion and honesty set the speaker—and the audience—at ease every time.

Daniella Dautrich studied classical rhetoric at a liberal arts college in Hillsdale, Michigan.

Photo: Liz West, courtesy of Creative Commons

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