The 13th draft

As a speechwriter, I’ve always taught my clients that the best way to ensure a concise, compelling speech is to let me write it plan their remarks in advance. That way they stay on course. Nothing kills the audience’s interest faster than a digression.

Sometimes I get pushback: “But I don’t know how to read a speech.” “I always sound so wooden with anything but bullet points.” The best response to this—it never fails with a certain type of ambitious speaker: “You’ll have to learn to read a speech if you want to do a TED Talk.”

How do you learn to read a speech? You practice. And if that seems like a waste of your valuable time, you should know that the best speakers all make the time. Because it’s that important.

Here’s one of my favorite stories about rehearsing a speech. It comes from the Fortune article about Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s book Executive Presence I’ve been writing about for the past two days:

When Hewlett was a graduate student at Harvard many years ago, her faculty advisor was the late economist John Kenneth Galbraith, a famously riveting public speaker. His secret, he once told her, was that he rewrote every speech 12 times. Then, he said, “I introduce a note of spontaneity in the thirteenth draft.”

The good news is that most executives have people like me to write their drafts; they only have to rehearse them.

Twelve or thirteen times? Hey—that’s what chauffeur-driven rides to the airport are for. And if your colleagues, spouse, and kids get sick of hearing the speech, there’s always the dog.Or the smart phone.

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