The Anatomy of a Speech

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Motivational Speaker Kelly Swanson is an award-winning storyteller, author, and comedian who teaches you how to harness the power of your story to connect, engage, and get results. In this blog, Kelly focuses on the business of professional speaking. Kelly’s post day is Friday. If you aren't sure how to comment on this story, click here.

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motivational speaker clothesline speech analogy

How do I write a speech?

Believe it or not, this is one of the most confusing things for hundreds of speakers. You would think it’s a given that a speaker would know how to write a speech, but I run into more people who can’t, than those who can. Even speakers who’ve been doing this for decades. So if you struggle every time you sit down to create that next speech, then hopefully this will help make the process easier, and give you more clarity on what really matters in that speech.

Where do I even start in writing a keynote speech?

You start by understanding the anatomy of a speech, and then planning it in outline form before you ever write the first word.

Well, actually, you start by knowing what you speak about and what message you are giving to the audience. So let’s back up first in case you missed that blog post.

Understand what you teach and why it matters

Before you write your speech, you must determine what you are teaching that audience to do, and why it matters to their life and their business.  We will call this the CONTENT portion of your speech.  Your content can be as detailed or as brief as you choose to make it.  Fill in this CONTENT TEMPLATE.

  • Who am I? ____________________________________
  • Why am I here? _________________________________
  • What is the problem we all face? ________________________________________
  • What happens if we don’t fix this problem? _________________________________
  • How did I experience this problem in my own life/business? _____________________________________
  • What overall solution did I find? ________________________________________________________
  • What were three ways I solved this problem? ________________________________________________
  • What were obstacles I faced on this journey and how did I address them? _______________________________________
  • How did my life/business get better once I solved this problem? _____________________________________________

If you can’t answer these questions, then you might just have a story and nothing else. Your story is not a speech. Your story is your story. A speech is something that teaches the AUDIENCE.

Earthshattering News on CONTENT

Here’s the kicker. Are you ready? Listen closely……


I can’t count how many speakers I hear teach you to focus on content. “You’re an expert who speaks!” they shout.  I couldn’t disagree more.

Yes, you are an expert on something.

Yes, you speak.

But it’s not your content that gets you booked as a KEYNOTE SPEAKER!  It’s the way you deliver that content. Period. End of discussion.

The EXPERIENCE gets you booked. The content gives you credibility.

I recently attended my annual speaker’s convention where one speaker stole the show.  Hands down, he was the best speaker I have ever heard. It was the best speech I had ever heard. And every person I ran into said the same thing. We can’t stop talking about his speech.

His name, by the way, is  Mark Scharenbroich and his website is   and if you EVER get the chance to hear him, do it. He is a true master.

Fact: He gets booked. Over and over and over and over.

Fact: Meeting planners rave about him as much as I am.

Fact: His content wasn’t what everybody is raving about. In fact, when I asked people what his points were, they had trouble remembering. And they didn’t care.

It wasn’t the content that got him booked or made him memorable. It was EVERYTHING ELSE. It was the stories, and the act outs, and the inprov, and pulling someone up from the audience, and referencing our group, and a million other things that I have yet to uncover until I study the video – which I will, for the rest of my life.

As with any bold proclamation in this business, there is always more than one exception. So, yes, I’m sure you can name a few people who are booked because they are the true expert (as in world famous, not famous among their peers) on the subject.  But the majority of keynote speakers are booked for the experience they create. How does content fit? It needs to be there for them to justify the expense. No content and you’re just an entertainer. They will make sure  your content is something they want. But how you wrap it will determine how much money you make. I promise.

Food for thought:  I’ve seen audiences walk away with content that changed their life, but they couldn’t remember the speaker past lunch. We can’t afford for them to just walk away with a new lesson. We need them to walk away singing our praises like fans at a rock concert.

This is why when I coach speakers I spend very little time on content. I just want to make sure you have something to say, and that you can spell it out in a clear concise way, so we can jump off that part and get to what REALLY matters.

For every minute I spend on content, I spend an hour on the story. 

Enter in the clothesline analogy.

Kelly’s Clothesline Analogy for Speakers

motivational speaker clothesline speech analogyLet’s break apart this diagram to the right and spell out the anatomy of your speech.

Disclaimer:  This is a really BASIC format. The more advanced you get, the more you will start moving the pieces around – splitting stories – creating more story through lines, etc. But we’ve all got to start somewhere.

The actual clothesline is the content of your speech. Notice how it’s a flat line? Because your content is pretty flat. Content alone is boring and has NO impact, I don’t care how exciting you think it is. It is void of emotion. The line from left to right follows your argument – the template I gave you above to fill out.  If you do handouts, this is probably the information you put on the handout.

Goal Posts
Okay….so they’re not goal posts. It’s a clothesline for gosh sakes.  I don’t think these posts have a technical term.  But they are of MAJOR IMPORTANCE because they bookend your speech. The opening and closing moments are the two most important moments of a speech because they are what audiences remember longest. Make them strong and sturdy and memorable. Open with a bang and close with a bang. Never open with dribble (I’d like to thank, isn’t this a nice room) and never close with dribble (Q&A).  Just as the success of a book relies on it’s opening first page, so does your speech. Lose them now, and you may never get them back.  Leave them on mediocre, and they will walk away relating your face and brand to mediocre.

The T-Shirts
Ahhhhhh.  This is where the magic is. It’s in every shirt you hang on that clothesline. These are the STORIES – and by story I mean anything that illustrates your content in story form. This can be an actual story, an act out, a game, a monologue, a song, etc.   If you think your speech should have one nice little emotional story at the end, you are mistaken. I recently saw a speech that was pure content (here is what you need to do) start to finish, and the audience was sleeping with their eyes open. The speaker ended with a touching story and in that few moments the audience finally came to life. But it was too late.  One cute story at the end can’t make up for thirty minutes of data dump.  And there’s something else about story that you should know.

Content compels, but it’s the story that SELLS.

As speakers we are all sales people, even if we have nothing tangible they can buy or sign up for. We are selling ourselves on that stage. We are selling a truth and we need them to buy in.  We are trying to impact and influence – to sell our message. So that makes us sales people. Cardinal rules in sales? People buy from people they like, believe, trust, and feel like they know. I hope you’re nodding your head. This isn’t me talking, it’s sales 101. Here’s what some of you are missing:

The data isn’t what makes you likeable, believable, and trustworthy. It’s your story.  So why would you choose the last moment of your speech to become my friend, to become real, to become human?  You needed to do it FIRST so that I will follow you on your journey. If you just dump data, you’re telling me what to do. And, guess what, people don’t like to be told what to do.  This doesn’t give you credibility. Your story does. Just trust me on this. I see this play out in every successful speaker I study, and every speaker who wishes they were booked more in the keynote slot.

Your success will be in direct correlation to how good those T-Shirts are on your clothesline.


What’s up with the socks?

In our speeches we have BIG stories (T-Shirts) and we have smaller anecdotes that don’t take as much time. They are usually the smaller stories that illustrate our point and connect to the content. That’s why I call them the socks.  Not every story in our speech has to be BIG.  Some are just small nuggets. Examples. Perhaps not even scripted out too much.  I’m a big believer in scripting a speech, but I will still leave moments open in the sock area and content area for more unstructured conversation. This lets audiences know that you’re really in this moment with them, responding to the room.

Even in the content, I believe it’s the sock that really has the impact and brings the point home. Your “point” is just driving it home with a repeatable, retweetable line. I think every good teacher will agree that the learning moment comes when the student sees (or experiences) the content as it applies to life.

The WOW Factor

I think you’ve got a good speech when you have a clear clothesline, awesome posts at each end, interesting socks, and off-the-hook t-shirts. And you can probably coast forever on that. But there’s another level, and I call it the WOW factor, and it has to do with that wavy line running through your clothesline diagram.

When I help speakers find their voice and tell their story, I’m looking for more than solid content and amazing t-shirts. I’m looking for a thread to run through the entire speech. This thread is a common theme or story that runs through the entire piece.  Most often I find this thread to be your life’s journey to the truth that you now teach. Let me say it again. It’s that important.

Your speech is your life’s journey to the truth that you teach.

The reason they chose a speaker is for that speaker’s perspective on the world – their story – their journey – life from where they sit. If they just wanted information, they could have bought the book or just taken the handout.  The are booking the speaker to make this personal to the speaker and to the audience.

When I’m looking at someone’s speech and it’s a series of points hanging on to some good stories, I try to find something bigger, something deeper that really makes the audience go WOW.

Let me give you an example. I was working with a speaker (Theresa Rose who has an amazing talent. She can hula hoop. Yes, you heard me right. She brings down the house with a hula hoop. And as much as she might fight it, it’s not her content we want to see. We want to watch her hoop.  Yes, her content is important. No denying that. But the hoop is what engages and entertains and keeps our attention. The hoop sets her apart. Her content is the same content others are giving, just told a different way. We want the show. When I first met her, the hoop performance was at the end of her speech.  It worked, but I couldn’t help but think, “What if….”  What if the hoop was another character in her speech? What if she had her own personality? What if she was a prop/persona that ran through the entire thing? What if we named her Stella? What is Theresa talked with Stella like she was a real person? What if the hoop also became a part of each story? What if she became a steering wheel, or a clock? What if that hoop was seamlessly woven into every moment of the speech? WOW.  We both in one moment watched her good enough speech become the most amazing idea ever. That’s what I mean by the WOW factor. (And, by the way, the hoop is what helped her lose weight and change her life – it’s integral to her message.)

Let me give you another example – just to show you how many ways you can find a WOW factor.  I was chatting with a friend about his speech. His name is Paul Templer   and he has an AMAZING story about getting his arm chewed off by a hippo. I’m jealous of his story. Some speakers get all the luck. Anyway……we were going through his speech. The content was there. Check.  The story was exciting. Check. But we wanted a WOW factor.  I asked him what he wore on stage and he said a suit.  “Why are you wearing a suit?” I asked. “It doesn’t really match the story.  I want to see you wearing the safari guide uniform you wore that day. And I don’t want you to be a speaker on a stage in a suit telling me about it. I want you to relive it. I want you to be the guy in the bar swinging a beer with your leg up on a stool, and we’re all rallying around you as tell this wild tale. Wouldn’t it be cool if the stage were set up like a bar with a high table and bar stool and we, your audience, are listening to you tell the story. You can still give us content, just don’t break character. And wouldn’t it be cool if you had Power Point slides with the actual pictures from the river? Or even a video that makes us feel like we are going down the river with you in that very moment? and wouldn’t it be cool to have a smoke machine blow smoke through the stage?”   Okay… the smoke machine was a little over the top. Or was it?  Can you see in just this example how a speech can go from great to WOW?

It doesn’t have to be that complicated. Sometimes it’s as simple as me helping you write your life story as it applies to the clothesline. The moments in your life that led you to here. When I was helping a speaker friend of mine “find the show that is within her” we stumbled on her father and what an influence he was in her life, and how his story fit into hers. Before long we came to see that the speech was really about her father and the impact he made on others.  Her speech was on customer service. Bingo.  We had just taken a good speech and entered in a WOW factor, simply by finding a story line we could weave through the whole thing. But there’s nothing simple about telling one long story divided up by moments of content. It’s profound for the audience. When you drag a story out throughout the speech, you’re taking them into a movie, and they will hang on with you every step of the way because they are desperate to find out what happens next.

I could cite many more diverse examples of WOW factors. But the main point is that you walk away looking for yours.

I hope by now you understand how little impact your content has, and how much those T-Shirts matter. I also hope you have more clarity on how to write that speech. But more than anything, I hope you find the courage to take your speech to a new place – to uncover a new talent – to add a song or a prop – to spend the time on those T-Shirts that matter the most.

Now here’s your homework:  Whenever you go see a speaker, write down what you liked about that speech. Why it was amazing to you.  Keep a list. And before long, you’ll see that I’m right.

Happy Writing!