What leaders can learn from social science about how to write a speech

Before you deliver another presentation to your next audience, learn the most important question you must ask about how to write a speech.


More than once, I’ve had a conversation like this with an executive who needs help putting together a speech or presentation for a business audience outside the organization:

Me: What kind of a presentation is it?

Exec: Informational.

Me: What’s the purpose of your talk?

Exec: I want to give them an update on our organization.

Me: Such as … ?

Exec: We’re growing, and we’ve had a lot of changes lately. New customers, new markets, new offices, new leaders. I want to make the business community aware.

Me: But why do they care?


And then?


But just for a minute.

When helping an executive who harbors so much pride in his or her organization, pushing back with such a harsh question – “But why do they care?” – is a risk, I know.

But it’s a risk I always take.

Because after the crickets comes a rich discussion between the executive and me about how to write a speech: about how to properly frame the talk so the audience cares about what the executive has to say.

Together, we pursue, consider and question different threads, diverse paths, new directions and ah-ha moments that will make the talk relevant, meaningful and fascinating to this particular audience.

Together, we work until we tap into a special something that will steer us toward the perfect, overarching message that speaks to a need the audience has.

That will give context to every subsequent point in the talk.

That will connect all the dots – and make the audience care.


How to write a speech 101

Turns out there’s a whole science behind what makes people care.

Ann Christiano and Annie Niemand, experts in public interest communications, wrote about it in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, the magazine and website for social change leaders in nonprofits, foundations, business, government and communities.

In “The Science of What Makes People Care,” Christiano and Niemand identify five principles – based in social science and supported by research from many academic disciplines – that can help leaders connect their work to what people care most about.

Here are the five principles and how you might apply them in speeches and presentations: valuable advice if you want to know how to write a speech that makes an impact on your audience.


Principle 1: Join the community

To make people care, connect your ideas to the audience’s deeply held values, beliefs, identities and worldview.

Apply this principle to your next speech: What can you say that allows people to become a better version of themselves?


Principle 2: Communicate in images

To make people care, abandon the abstract. Instead, use concrete, visual language so the audience can form powerful, visual images in their brains.

Apply this principle to your next speech: What can you say with figurative language to spark people’s memories of past experiences?


Principle 3: Invoke emotion with intention

To make people care, move them with stories and situations that make them feel profoundly good (versus bad, especially when they can’t resolve feelings like sadness, fear or guilt).

Apply this principle to your next speech: What can you say to invoke wonder, connectedness, pride or hope – emotions that move audiences to believe something or do something?  


Principle 4: Create meaningful calls to action

To make people care, create a call to action that is specific, consequential and doable – not grandiose and lofty, which feels unattainable.

Apply this principle to your next speech: What can you say to motivate people to act because they are sure it will make a difference?


Principle 5: Tell better stories

To make people care, swap vignettes for actual stories, which have a beginning, middle and end; characters; and a plot, conflict and resolution.

Apply this principle to your next speech: What can you say to engage audiences with fascinating stories that challenge them with the unusual and the unexpected?


The most important question you must ask about how to write a speech

Social change leaders and social service organizations seeking support from partners, donors and volunteers can certainly benefit from embracing these five research-based principles that reveal how to make people care.

Executives who are trying to engage people in speeches and presentations can benefit as well.

Christiano and Niemand said it best:

“People fail to act not because they do not have enough information, but because they don’t care

“Investing your communications resources simply in spreading information will not inspire anyone to get behind your cause.”

Even if you are not a social change leader, you still have a cause when you speak.

And that is to get your audience to think and act differently in some way.

Take a look at the last speech or presentation you gave.

  • What did you say?
  • How did you say it?
  • And did your audience really care?

Deep down, if the answer to that last question is “no” or “not really,” apply the five principles above to make your next speech or presentation go beyond the routine of “informational awareness” into the realm of what’s relevant, meaningful and fascinating if you want to capture the precious time and attention of your audience and compel them to think and act differently in some way.

In the future, before you agree to speak to an audience on a particular topic (and spend hours pouring onto paper everything you think you want to say), stop and ask yourself the most important question about how to write a speech that will make an impact on your audience.

And that question is this:

Why do they care?


Do you need to create a speech or presentation that resonates with your audience? 
Work with Teresa Zumwald, an award-winning speechwriter and speech coach.
Contact us today!