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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

5 Speechwriting Tips I Learned From Speaking to High Schoolers

Since starting my food truck three years ago, I’ve spoken on a few panels about being a business owner and using social media to market my company. Most of the panels were held on college campuses and involved eager students who were looking for advice on how to get started and how to promote their brands. And they were all pretty easy—I was speaking from experience and was usually flanked by a professor and another business owner.

A few weeks ago, my high school ROTC instructor invited my sister and I to speak at the program’s opening ceremonies. Both Dr. Key (little sister) and I served as leaders while in the program, and he wanted us to give our testimony to the new batch of freshmen who signed up. I suppose we made an impression on him and the other remaining instructors, so we agreed to serve as the guest speakers on the condition that there would be cake afterward. Hey, I thought—if I can sit on an entrepreneurship panel, I can definitely deliver a speech to a group of kids born after Space Jam.

I was excited to go back to my high school and talk to the students about the benefits of the program and how it helped me become a better student, leader, and eventual entrepreneur. But as the days approached, I began scrambling for the right words. What was I going to say to students who had a Facebook account in high school? How could I reach the 14-year-old who was born when I was in eighth grade?

But before I reached complete freak-out mode about my mortality and went out to buy a few anti-aging creams at the local drug store, I took a deep breath and tried to envision what my 2013 high school freshman counterpart would want to hear. I also tried to get some order around this whole speechwriting process. Here are a few steps I took to speechwriting gold.

1. Know Your Audience

You’ve heard this tip before, but it’s especially true when you’re talking to people who are in a completely different stage of life than you are. You want to make sure your audience knows that the speech is for them, while also not trying to be someone you’re not. In my case, I had to balance trying to relate to them while not going overboard—I didn’t want to use their lingo to seem “down” and totally fail—so I made references to how they were feeling and tried to connect that, appropriately, with my own high school experience.

For example, I could’ve mentioned my stairway-rendezvouses with high school boyfriends. Sure it’s relatable, but probably inappropriate (especially since parents were present). Instead, I said that budding romances can sometimes be the focus in high school (life), but that at this stage, the students should focus on the budding person they want to see in five or 10 years.

2. Create an Outline

Two days before the event, I had a lot of ideas about what I wanted to talk about. So I jotted them all down in my Moleskine—and realized that none of them really meshed. So, I went back to the drawing board, and instead decided on a theme, wrote an introduction, and selected two main points that I wanted to cover. Especially if you’re speaking about something you know, this may seem like an unnecessary step, but having an outline really helped me organize the speech—and ensured that I wouldn’t ramble on longer than my allotted 10 minutes.

3. Use Quotes

I’m a fan of quotes. I have them posted in my cubicle and a few in my mirror at home. Because, let’s face it: Anything profound that I may think or feel has probably been said more eloquently by someone of yesteryear. So, I often use quotes (or 1-2 sentences from a quote) to make a point or to help the audience understand a lesson in a profound way. When in doubt, quote away—it worked for high schoolers, it works for everyone.

4. Proofread (Aloud)

Once I had my speech prepared, I had a few friends read it for errors and for anything that didn’t make sense. This, again, might seem like an unnecessary step, but it was actually quite helpful. One friend made the sound recommendation that I leave out the twerking reference. Another rearranged the order of the speech for a better flow. I also read the speech aloud to my sister, grandparents, and boyfriend, which helped me form a rhythm and become more familiar with my points so that I wasn’t looking down the entire time. Team No Teleprompter.

5. Tell Your Story

Authenticity always wins. I’ve found that audiences not only want to hear about your triumphs, but your trials, too. Without the trials, you don’t learn the lessons. And without the lessons, you don’t have a story. Be vulnerable and honest, and you’ll definitely keep their attention.

I told them it’s been 4,730,000 minutes since I graduated from high school, and in those minutes I’ve earned two degrees, gained 30 pounds, had my heart broken twice, and started one food truck. I got a few laughs on the 30 pounds piece from the parents, but I think the students were caught on the 4,000,000 minutes piece and all that had happened to me in that time, which is exactly what I wanted.

The speech, all of seven minutes, was a success. The students were motivated by it—so much so that we’re working on a program for alumni to visit the students once a month—but more importantly, I took away a few lessons of my own.

Photo of man speaking courtesy of Shutterstock.