How to find and write to your speaker’s voice

by Cynthia J. Starks on July 14, 2009

Once, when I wrote speeches for the president of a multinational corporation headquartered in New England, my speaker invited me to attend his church because he liked the way his minister expressed himself and wanted me to write in that vein.  Several Sunday mornings, I drove more than an hour from my home, listened intently to the sermons, took notes and afterwards tried to replicate how the minister expressed himself in the context of the speeches I wrote for my executive.

I discovered it’s hard enough to capture one person’s voice; it’s impossible to capture that voice channeled through a third party.

Capturing a speaker’s voice is no easy thing. It involves trying to be true to an individual’s rhythm and cadence, use of specific vocabulary or phrases, emotion, mannerisms and more.  Sometimes it seems like capturing lightning in a bottle.  Other times you wish there were more lightning to capture.  Some speakers are dynamic; some speakers are dull.

Over the years, I’ve learned that capturing a speaker’s voice is mostly a result of “time and space.”  Simply put, it takes the opportunity to listen to your executive in a variety of settings, both casual and formal, over time.

But as freelance speechwriters, we’re at a distinct disadvantage in this area.  We don’t have this kind of access or this kind of leisure.  Often, we take an assignment over the phone from the executive communications VP.  When this happens, push for a conference call with the executive him- or herself.   Say you need this in order to write the best possible speech.

Then, tape the call (after getting permission, of course).  Get as much input as you can about the purpose of the speech, the specific messages the speaker would like to convey, and what the speaker wants the audience to think, do and feel at the end of the speech.  Then ask these questions to help you find out more of the speaker’s personality.

  • How does the speaker like to spend time away from work?
  • Where did he or she go to school?
  • Where did he or she grow up?
  • Who does he or she admire (in business, politics, the arts, education or public life)?
  • Does he or she have children, what ages?
  • What kind of music and films does the speaker enjoy?
  • What makes him or her laugh? Who is his or her favorite comedian?
  • What is his or her dream job?
  • What tone would the speaker like the speech to set?
  • Does the speaker have a favorite recent speech he or she gave?  Why did he or she like it so much?  Audience reaction?  Comfort level?  Subject matter?

Ask for copies of the speaker’s past speeches, especially the ones he or she likes best.  They will help you get a better sense of how the speaker likes to present him/herself.

Having said all this about the difficulty of capturing a speaker’s voice, I’m reminded of another speaker I wrote for.  He was the chairman of the local phone company in New Haven, Connecticut.  Without doing any of the things I’m suggesting are needed to capture a speaker’s voice, we just clicked.  He loved the way I wrote for him and he was a joy to write for.

So have hope.  Sometimes the lightning comes right to the bottle.

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