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Writing Well

Life of the Party: Speeches That Entertain

Speaking to the Young People's Society in Greepoint, Brooklyn, in 1901, Mark Twain advised, “Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”

Writer's Block

Speeches that entertain can have a more profound effect on your life than speeches that inform or persuade. That's because entertaining speeches are delivered at social occasions that give you the opportunity to ingratiate yourself with your audience. This often results in promotions, new employment opportunities, business contacts, and other goodies.

For centuries, speakers have been called upon to “say a few words” at various social events. These include club meetings, dinners, parties, graduations, holidays, weddings, and ribbon cuttings—all our social functions. Sometimes these speeches help create greater unity within an organization. Other times, they honor individuals or fulfill part of a social ritual or special ceremony.

What makes these speeches different from the other forms I've described so far is their purpose: They don't inform or persuade. Instead, they entertain. Here's how to write speeches that weave the social fabric a bit tighter.

Crowd Pleaser

When it comes to speeches that entertain, if you can't be brief, at least be memorable. Write a speech that's easy to remember and tantalizing for the press to quote. For example, Winston Churchill was once asked to give the commencement address at Oxford University. Following his introduction, he walked to the podium, said “Never, never give up,” and took his seat.

When you write a speech that entertains, always start by assessing your audience. You know that audience analysis is a crucial component in every writing situation, but it's especially vital when you're writing an entertaining speech because here, your listeners are gathered to have a good time. They don't have to stay to gather information or to listen to your viewpoint (so they can later rebut it). As a result, always start by thinking how you can make sure the audience gets what they came for. Consider their likes and dislikes and their level of sophistication.

Author! Author!

President Woodrow Wilson's Declaration of War Against Germany speech (1917) contains the famous line: “The world must be made safe for democracy.” The speech is also remarkable for Wilson's insistence that “we have no quarrel with the German people … We fight without rancor and without selfish object.” Such self-restraint and Wilson's promise that victory would result in “a universal dominion of right” helped win liberal support for the war effort.

Come on Baby, Let the Good Times Roll

After you complete your audience analysis, select a central theme, just as you did with informative and persuasive speeches. But here, remember that your audience just wants to have fun. Your topic should be genial, good-natured, and suited to you: after all, if you're not having fun, how can anyone else party hearty?

Your overall theme should be …

  • Optimistic. This is not the time to unburden your soul and let it all hang out. Keep it light.
  • Uncomplicated. Don't make your audience do any heavy lifting to get your point. Instead, develop your speech around one or two points that your listeners can grasp easily.
  • Lively. Select a theme that can be illustrated by pertinent anecdotes and humorous stories (if humor works with your comfort zone).

But wait! Every entertaining speech, no matter how light and amusing, should have at least one serious point. A speech that's all sweetness and light can border on empty. Including one serious point serves as an anchor, so people feel like their getting their money's worth, like the prize in the Cracker Jack box.

The Line-Up

Write Angles

Open with your strongest anecdote and close with your second strongest one. Your listeners (just like your readers) will remember the beginning and end of your speech most clearly.

Here's my favorite way to organize an entertaining speech:

  1. Open with an anecdote. Select one that directly relates to your audience or purpose.
  2. Explain the point of the anecdote. Describe how your speech will be organized around this point.
  3. Beef up your theme with additional anecdotes. Remember to spread your anecdotes evenly through your speech so the really good stuff isn't all bunched in the beginning, middle, or end.
  4. Conclude by restating your central point.
  5. Finish with a great anecdote to ensure a memorable ending.

Model Entertaining Speech #1

The following entertaining speech is by Mark Twain (1835-1910), one of the most captivating writers and speakers to ever grace a podium. Mark Twain, the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, rocketed to fame with humorous local-color tales of the West; he became a media darling by transforming stories of his childhood into American myth. Twain was extraordinarily popular on the lecture circuit, a popular venue for public entertainment before movies, television, radio, and Madonna. Here's his speech:

Author! Author!

On May 13, 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill prepared England to battle the Nazis with these famous words:

  • … I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. … You ask, what is our policy? I say it is to wage war by land, sea, and air. War with all our might and with all the strength God has given us, and to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.
  • You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory. Victory at all costs—Victory in spite of all terrors—Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.
  • My heart goes out in sympathy to anyone who is making his first appearance before an audience of human beings. By a direct process of memory I go back forty years, less one month—for I'm older than I look.
  • I recall the occasion of my first appearance. San Francisco knew me then only as a reporter, and I was to make my bow to San Francisco as a lecturer. I knew that nothing short of compulsion would get me to the theater. So I bound myself by a hard-and-fast contract so that I could not escape. I got to the theater forty-five minutes before the hour set for the lecture. My knees were shaking so that I didn't know whether I could stand up. If there is an awful, horrible malady in the world, it is stage fright—and seasickness. They are a pair. I had stage fright then for the first and last time. I was only seasick once, too. I was on a little ship on which there were two hundred other passengers. I—was—sick. I was so sick that there wasn't any left for those other two hundred passengers.
  • It was dark and lonely behind the scenes in that theater, and I peeked through the little peek holes they have in theater curtains and looked into the big auditorium. That was dark and empty, too. By and by it lighted up, and the audience began to arrive.
  • I had a number of friends of mine, stalwart men, to sprinkle themselves throughout the audience armed with clubs. Every time I said anything they could possibly guess I intended to be funny, they were to pound those clubs on the floor. Then there was a kind lady in a box up there, also a good friend of mine, the wife of the governor. She was to watch me intently, and whenever I glanced toward her she was going to deliver a gubernatorial laugh that would lead the whole audience into applause.
  • At last I began. I had the manuscript tucked under a United States flag in front of me where I could get at it in case of need. But I managed to get started without it. I walked up and down—I was young in those days and needed the exercise— and talked and talked.
  • Right in the middle of the speech I had placed a gem. I had put in a moving, pathetic part which was to get at the hearts and souls of my hearers. When I delivered it, they did just what I hoped and expected. They sat silent and awed. I had touched them. Then I happened to glance up at the box where the governor's wife was—you know what happened.
  • Well, after the first agonizing five minutes, my stage fright left me, never to return. I know if I was going to be hanged I could get up and make a good showing, and I intend to. But I shall never forget my feelings just before the agony left me, and I got up here to thank you for helping my daughter, by your kindness, to live through her first appearance. And I want to thank you for your appreciation of her singing, which is, by the way, hereditary.

Model Entertaining Speech #2

Since odds are that you'll be writing and delivering more entertaining speeches than any other kind (and sweating more over them), here's another model you can use. This is an outstanding graduation speech delivered on May 21, 1998, by Jennifer L. Joyner-Lebling, the valedictorian of the graduating class at the State University of New York College of Technology at Farmingdale. Notice how Ms. Joyner-Lebling graciously credits others.

Voyage of Discovery

  • Chairman Mastroianni, Dr. Cipriani, honored members of the college council, faculty, staff, fellow classmates, family, and friends, I am honored to have been selected Valedictorian of the graduating class of 1998. I am honored to represent your commitment, dedication, and accomplishment in achieving your goal to be here today.
  • Congratulations to all of you. As our celebrations end later today, consider tomorrow and realize that graduation is just one giant step in a very important direction. For some of us, this step has been a struggle full of obstacles, barriers, and distractions—for others it has not been that easy. However, through our struggles we have still accomplished our goal, and we are here today to celebrate our achievements. This awesome achievement we have made together, as well as the individual achievements of our team members.
  • Like Karen Conner, the Valedictorian for the Associates degree, who was awarded the National Scholarship from the Institute of Management Accountants.
  • And like Michael Rodriquez of the Aerospace program, the recipient of the John L. Godwin Memorial Flight Scholarship awarded by the National Air Transportation Association Foundation. Each are receiving Chancellor's Awards for Student Excellence.
  • And like Ornamental Horticulture graduates Pat Haugen, Elizabeth Boruke, Melissa Rigo, Steve Langella, Jessica Bottcher, Matt McFadden, and Steve Noone, who were members of a team which took first place at the Mid-Atlantic Horticultural Field Day at Suffolk Community College.
  • Today is the culmination of a lot of work, a lot of sweat, a lot of tears, and a lot of money … but we are not finished. This is not final. It is, however, a significant milestone in our voyage of discovery. We have just emerged on a whole new level. You are all outstanding representatives of our graduating class. But none of us accomplished these feats alone. We had our families, partners, and friends—and we had the tutelage and guidance of some pretty incredible teachers. Before you leave today, be sure to thank at least one teacher from whom you have learned while at SUNY Farmingdale, and let them know that they are appreciated.
  • Thank you Dr. Gary Brown for your enthusiasm and passion for your subjects and for your interest in and concern for your students.
  • Thank you Dr. Richard Iversen for your never-ending support, encouragement, and mentoring. You have both made a substantial impact on my education and on my future.
  • Thank you Gary, Fred, Debbie, and Danielle for your guidance and friendship.
  • French novelist Marcel Proust once said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” In receiving our diplomas today, we are receiving “new eyes.” Use what you have learned here at SUNY Farmingdale to see things in ways in which you have never noticed before. Continue to learn. Open your minds to new ideas and concepts. We leave here with the ability to make a change, the capability to make a difference, and the responsibility to make a contribution. Congratulations to you, my fellow graduates, and good luck to you as you continue on your voyage of discovery.
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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Well © 2000 by Laurie Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

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