I haven’t written a speech since I was an undergraduate in college. Sure, I’ve led discussions and given some presentations to both small and large groups over the course of my professional life. But it’s been quite some time since I have written an official speech. So, it should go without saying, I had to go back to the basics when getting started with this week’s writing prompt.
Here’s my current approach to writing my own inaugural address for our historical moment. Much of this approach could likely be applied to writing an inaugural poem as well. Instead of researching and watching inaugural addresses, one could research and watch past inaugural poems or notable poems recited throughout history.
First, I annotated Biden’s inaugural address and reflected on the bits of his address that resonated with me, the nation and world, and our particular moment in history. I also took into account the nods he made to previous presidents in his inaugural address, most notably, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Second, I refreshed my memory and knowledge about what’s typically included in a speech and did a bit of digging to attempt to go beyond the surface level of what’s included in a speech. I wanted to know what made a speech resonate for decades, perhaps centuries— speeches like Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech.
I found list after list and article after article of memorable speeches that have stood the test of time. Speeches that are still constantly referred to today. The list below is not exhaustive, but it does offer some resources I encountered and wanted to share, if you’re interested in reading, watching, or learning more about some incredible and memorable speeches.
You’re probably already aware of many of the speeches on these lists. Some of them you might have forgotten about over the years. Some of them might be new to you. But reading and watching a few of them for the first or second time does encourage one to pause and reflect and offers a bit of needed inspiration.
- Constitution Daily: Looking at 10 great speeches in American History
- History.com: 10 Modern Presidential Speeches Every American Should Know
- americanrhetoric.com: Top 100 Speeches
- Time: Top 10 Greatest Speeches
- News.wisc.edu [University of Wisconsin-Madison News, Website Archives]: Top 100 American speeches of the 20th century
There are, of course, the three main parts of every speech: the introduction, the body, and the conclusion. But I wanted to be a little more specific. What should I include in an inaugural address in particular?
I did a bit of exploring online and discovered this Build Your Own Speech generator by The Washington Post for inaugural addresses. The generator includes five sections that must be included in an inaugural address, sections that have been included in most previous inaugural addresses:
- State of the nation
- Issues and plan
- Closing statement
There are multiple examples for each section offered next to the generator, examples from previous presidential inaugural addresses that were made in real-life— excerpts of inaugural addresses that spanned centuries, from the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson to the inauguration of Barack Obama. And those examples encouraged me to pull up footage of some of those inaugural addresses, which also led me to lessons from C-Span on how to view and analyze recent presidential inaugural addresses.
While I don’t analyze speeches as a professional vocation, I did find it quite interesting to look at older footage of previous inaugurations. It allows one to get a sense of how things have changed over the past decades, while also allowing one to sense how many things have remained the same.
Third, I watched some of this footage of older inaugural addresses and read copies of their manuscripts, and attempted to analyze them, at least on a basic level. While viewing them and reading them, I also tried to place myself in the historical moment in which they were each being given. And I paid attention to what was resonating with me the most as a viewer and addressee. Even those born in the future of a nation are addressees of a presidential inaugural address, no?
Was it a particular cadence that was resonating with me? A particular tone? Particular words that were being used? A particular important historical moment that was acknowledged?
Next, I started to write my draft, keeping some other tips to writing a speech that I had discovered and learned about during the week in mind:
- Forbes: 10 Keys to Writing a Speech
- Public Affairs Council pac.org: Speechwriting 101
- Graduate School of Political Management, The George Washington University: 7 Keys to a Good Speech
It’s critical to remember one’s audience when writing a speech, as well as its core purpose or message. It’s also important to stay memorable and incorporate the appropriate tone in the speech for the occasion. And to include transitions and leave a lasting impression on one’s audience.
Some of the above information about speeches may seem rudimentary at first glance to some of us. However, before we’re overly liberal with our judgments and criticisms, let’s not forget that many of us aren’t adept public speakers— not by a long shot. In fact, we’re more likely to welcome death than the opportunity to speak in front of a live audience. So, learning how to write and give a memorable speech, especially an inaugural address, is no small feat and is not for those lacking courage and fortitude. It is, however, a critical practice for our current historical moment. When offered the opportunity, what would you or I like to say to our fellow countrywomen and men?
Stay tuned for the final draft of my inaugural address, coming in another post …
I hope to see a copy of yours too.
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