Adele and The Secret to Writing a Great Speech

Can speechwriting be taught? To an extent, yes. But the key ingredient that separates a good speech from a great speech will always be elusive.

I was reminded of this by an NPR story this morning. It described a concept called appoggiatura, which one expert says is the secret to writing a hit song that tugs at the heartstrings and delivers a rain of awards and royalties upon its creators.

Appoggiatura can be heard in Adele’s Someone Like You. Specifically where she sings the word “you” in the chorus:

According to Sloboda, that little vocal dip in there on the word “you” — that’s the key to triggering an emotional response in a listener.

“Our brains are wired to pick up the music that we expect,” says Sloboda. So when we’re listening to music, our brain is constantly trying to guess what comes next. “And generally music is consonant rather than dissonant, so we expect a nice chord. So when that chord is not quite what we expect, it gives you a little bit of an emotional frisson, because it’s strange and unexpected.”

When Adele bounces around the note on “you,” there’s a tension that is then released, Sloboda explains.

“The music taps into this very primitive system that we have which identifies emotion on the basis of a violation of expectancy,” he says. “It’s like a little upset which then gets resolved or made better in the chord that follows.”

Naturally, this news comes as a big surprise to the song’s composer, who says that if he knew the secret to writing a hit song he’d be doing it every day.

This all reminds me of the speechwriting process. You can find any number of experts (or “experts”) discoursing on the critical elements that make up a great speech, and those articles can be helpful, I suppose, in helping you pull together a checklist of techniques that have proven successful.

But I could read a hundred articles on the essential elements of a hit song and I’d never be able to put them together to craft a hit. Or even much of a song, really.

And that’s why hiring a professional is probably a good idea — especially for a speech that counts. It’s not something that can be manufactured from a bunch of cobbled together tips.

For me it’s always come sort of naturally. I was at the PR firm for just a few weeks when someone asked if I could write a speech. I said sure, undaunted by the fact that I really hadn’t done it much. That speech turned out pretty good, I suppose, because I was quickly inundated by requests from all across the firm. I was dubbed “speech boy.”

I was writing speeches for CEOs and executives in all kinds of industries, and finding myself standing at the back of ballrooms mouthing the words along with them and cringing when they failed to “hit the right notes.”

Someday I will probably write my own Top Ten Speech Tips to add to the 66,000 others already on Google. But the one thing that will be missing is that thing I can barely put into words — that X factor that allows me to craft a good speech without really planning how it’s done.

For me, language is like music. And I’m terrible at music, but I seem to have the ability to instinctively pick up on the rhythms and tempos of language, and to quickly recognize the true “voice” of the speaker and to bring that all together in a form that works.

Content is critical, of course. And storytelling, and understanding audiences. And all of those things would go into my own tips. But making the language soar so it triggers an emotional response is something that I don’t think can be taught.

So, I’m sorry to disappoint. But I am happy that I am now in a place where I am writing speeches for the best client a speechwriter could ever have: myself.