Common among the best, most memorable speeches you’ll hear is an old trick among speechwriters: themes. Whether it’s an allegory to help explain a complex topic, or a personal anecdote to help break the ice with a little bit of humour, themes can be a big help to a speaker, keeping the audience interested in the topic at-hand.
Fletcher Dean, who runs the excellent and much-quoted thespeechwriter.com has posted some helpful tips on using themes in a speech. I’ll share some highlights:
True ‘happened-to-me’ stories — This isn’t a “while I was waiting on the taxi” theme but a real event in the life of the speaker. These not only have the benefit of providing a good theme, but they endear the speaker to the audience.
Stories — Folk tales and fairy tales can even provide memorable introductions into your main topic. These are especially useful for international speakers when you can find a local tale familiar to the audience. It shows the speaker has done his or her homework and appreciates the local culture.
Quotes — A good quote can set the tone early in a speech and give you an interesting theme. If the person being quoted is well-known and well-liked, this technique has the added benefit of letting your speaker borrow credibility.
Reference to an historical event — One of my favorites, this often requires some legwork to ferret out but is easily worth the effort. Listeners appreciate the historical perspective and anecdotes this technique provides, especially if it’s tied to a “day-in-history” event.
Current events — A quick scan of the news can often provide just the hook you need to develop a theme. Because speeches are often written days, if not weeks ahead, however, it’s most useful to look for news events that have staying power. These may even include books on the best-seller list, popular movies and television shows or even print and broadcast ads.
Statistics — In a category all by themselves, statistics can often be elevated to theme status if you find the right ones. Economic and education stats are often useful but so are demographics if you can use them to illustrate a point. The key here, of course, is to bring those statistics down to a personal level.