I had the opportunity to interview Neil Mansharamani, a speechwriter at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), about what it takes to write a good speech and why he chose to be a speechwriter.
Neil has worked at the FAA for eight years as a speechwriter. Before that, he was a graduate student at the University of Maryland pursuing a Ph.D. in communications. While at the university he taught courses in public speaking and debate. He pursued speechwriting because it was an opportunity to gain some “practical experience in communication.” He was also an intercollegiate debater when he was an undergraduate.
Neil was hired by the FAA after applying for what he thought would be an internship – a welcome surprise. His work includes writing speeches and talking points for executives, creating PowerPoint presentations, and
writing articles. He drafts speeches for as many as four people at a time and says that each person has a unique style that he must tailor his speeches to. Drafting a speech can be a multi-day process, as research and word choice are key when it comes to speechwriting, especially for the FAA.
Three tips for writing a speech.
1. Remember your audience.
Neil stressed that the values, beliefs and concerns of the audience are vital to the success of a speech. Knowing your audience gives you the ability to tailor the content of the speech, allowing you to engage in the most efficient way with your audience.
2. Focus on your message.
What do you want to say? Create a main message that will stick throughout the speech. The information that supports this message must also be correct, a rule taken seriously at the FAA. Neil begins his process by conducting research, and all of his speeches are fact checked again before they are completed. If the information is wrong, the speaker’s credibility will be damaged.
3. Make it stylish.
This step is what brings the two previous steps together. Using style to your advantage is a point that Neil stressed throughout the interview. A speech isn’t great unless it is memorable. Speeches like King’s “I Have a Dream” and JFK’s “Ask Not” were successful because they used effective style tools to make the point. According to Neil, devices like parallel structure and repetition are great ways to make your speech memorable to your audience.
I plan to apply these tactics when planning my own speeches and presentations. As for giving the speeches, Neil boiled it down to knowing your stuff and being confident. “People really appreciate a prepared and confident speaker.”