Interview with Colin Moorhouse: Engaging an Audience Through Speechwriting

 Tell me a little bit about your background.

I have been a freelance speechwriter for over 20 years, providing speechwriting services to senior levels of government, the private sector, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), in Canada, the US and Europe.  I also provide in-person classes to organizations on effective speech writing and presentations, teach at our local university, and conduct an online course.


Why did you decide to work in speechwriting and presentation training?

Early in my career I worked for a number of years in government. I read many of the speeches that crossed my desk and I thought I could do a better job.

I also knew that thousands of speeches were given every day in centres large and small across North America and that most CEOs and senior executives did not write their own speeches. Either they would get their PR department to do it, or the work would have to be contracted out to an outside firm.  I thought there might be a market here for a freelance speechwriter. There was – and there is.


What are the biggest problems you see within speechwriting and public speaking?

Most people are not trained to write for the ear, and that includes communications staff within companies or government agencies. So when they are called upon to write a speech for their respective managers they are at a loss on how to proceed.

This can be a big problem for mid-level managers who have to deliver talks to internal staff, or for CEOs giving keynotes on the international stage.


Do you have any advice for how people can take their presentation to the next level?

Regardless of how the presentation will be eventually delivered – from a written text, from memory, from note cards – I always recommend that in the first instance a speech be written out in full narrative form.

From there it is absolutely essential to practice/rehearse the speech out loud.  It is the only way to see and hear what phrases and words are not working.

After that, depending on their comfort level on the stage, speakers can decide how they will actually deliver the presentation.

As an aside, some of the best speeches I have ever heard have been delivered right off the page.  I am not suggesting reading from a text is the best method of delivery, but there is a way of delivering a speech with a text in front of you without seeming to be a slave to it.

A number of great TED talks are delivered this way.  Steve Jobs’ famous Commencement address at Stanford was delivered from the page as well.


Do you think visual aids can help a public speaker? Can visuals simplify a complex topic?

Yes and yes, but with a cautionary note.

You really have to know why you are using visuals.

Unfortunately far too many use visuals, and usually the wrong type, as a crutch.  PowerPoint can be great, in the right hands for the right purpose.

After two decades of writing speeches, and providing PowerPoint for a significant percentage of those talks I have come to the following thought about PowerPoint, and it is this:

“The more the audience has a specific vested interest in the content of the talk the more likely PowerPoint will be beneficial.”

So for example, when a sales manager in a retail auto firm gives the monthly sales figures to his staff.  

Or when a prominent scientist, at an international conference of scientists, is giving the latest scientific data on say – recent advances in cures for diabetes.

In both cases these audiences are very primed to tune in to the details provided in the PP presentation.  Of course they will want those PowerPoint decks to take home with them.

On the other hand, there are many conferences where audiences don’t have a primary attachment to the details of the content of the presentation.  They are there to be inspired or otherwise engaged – for personal or professional reasons. In these cases, unless the visuals are very engaging and unless the speaker knows what he/she is doing, they might be best left on the cutting room floor.

As a general rule, most people cannot readily assimilate listening to words spoken aloud while at the same time reading words and graphs on a slide.  It may be a right brain/left brain thing.  In any case what usually happens is that they tune out the speaker while they are reading or interpreting the slide. 

But they can process the spoken word and photos at the same time, which is why it is usually much better to have images than words on a slide.  If you must use words, use very few.


Do you think poor visuals can negatively impact great contact?

Absolutely.  Poor design, too much verbiage and indecipherable tables and graphs can absolutely result in a disconnected audience.

Even if the slides are great, you don’t want the speaker to play second fiddle to his/her slides.


As a professional speechwriter, what tips do you have for people to create engaging content?

Tell stories.   They have to be authentic stories, personal to the speaker.  Stories told second hand have limited impact.

Try to inject some humor. Humor usually comes from life stories and those that work the best are self-deprecatory ones told by the presenter.  That approach says to the audience that he/she is “one of them”, with the same flaws and foibles as they have.


How does the language differ within different types of speeches? For example, informational, selling, pitching an idea, etc.

You have to consider both the knowledge level and interest level of the audience.  Not to mention the primary language of attendees.

In the case of international keynotes, English tends to be the language of delivery but not necessarily the native language of the audience.  That means the speechwriter has to keep the language fairly simple (not simplistic!) with sentences short and medium length rather than overly long.  That’s not a bad idea for any speech in any case.  Also, if you are dealing with an international audience you have to remember that humor doesn’t necessarily travel well, since humor that works can be very local.  So it can be a little dangerous.

On the other hand, if the speech is internal, or for audiences whose native language is English you are on a little safer ground.  But you still have to pay attention to the knowledge level of the audience.

If you are speaking to a general audience, clearly you can’t make assumptions about their level of expertise.  You have to avoid the overuse of acronyms, or “inside-baseball” terminology.

If you are looking to pitch ideas – especially those that might be a hard sell – one approach might be to pose those ideas as rhetorical questions.

The same might apply to audiences who might be hostile for other reasons.  For example, a politician has to speak to an audience angry about government cutback decisions.  At the very least he/she has to acknowledge those feelings.  This can be tricky since you can’t come across as condescending.  Then I would involve them in how the government came to the hard decision of making those cutbacks.

Such a situation might also apply to a manager having to announce personnel cutbacks, or in sales having to lay down some hard truths about financial projections.


When presenting, what level of audience involvement do you recommend? 

I write mainly keynote speeches for clients speaking at international venues before audiences of at least a few hundred. So, for most of my clients, I don’t recommend it at all.  I find that it is too easy to get sidetracked and in any case, asking for audience involvement rarely works well at venues numbering over about 25 people.


Are there any lessons sales people can learn from speechwriters?

Yes.  All presentations must meet the needs of the audience over and above the needs to the presenter to deliver a favorite message.  And so if I was in sales and making a presentation, the first thing I would ask myself was what does this group want to hear, and what do they need to hear.  Of course these are not necessarily the same thing but you must address both.


Is there any final advice you can you offer our readers – presenters, designers, or public speakers?

A good speech engages an audience, so that long after it forgets the details of the presentation, it remembers the main messages, and continues to associate those messages with the speaker.

And what are the elements of engagement?  There are six primary factors.  The oratorical skills of the speaker, the nature of the event and the expectations of the audience, the language employed by the speaker, the stories told, the use of humor, and whether the presentation is interesting.

The neat thing is that not all six factors have to be at play for a speech to be engaging.  Get one or two working for you and you are off to the races!

When all is said and done, presenters should ask themselves if they would want to sit through one of their own presentations.

Related posts