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 …

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.

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

book cover

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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