Powerful sentence structure is fundamental to captivating writing or speaking. Here is a little gem of advice from writer Gary Provost. (The highlighting is mine.)
Vary Sentence Length
This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.
Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals—sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader’s ear. Don’t just write words. Write music.
The difference in sentence structure between the first paragraph and the second and third paragraphs is stark. To get the full effect, read them aloud.
This advice is not just useful for novelists; it is also important when it comes to writing a speech. You want to vary the sentences so that there is a dynamic flow to your words. When the sentences contrast, the words come alive.
For example, take the sentence structure in Barack Obama’s speech after the 2008 New Hampshire Primary:
It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation. Yes, we can.
It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail towards freedom through the darkest of nights. Yes, we can.
It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness. Yes, we can.
It was the call of workers who organized, women who reached for the ballot, a president who chose the moon as our new frontier, and a king who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the promised land. Yes, we can, to justice and equality.
Two other thoughts when it comes to adding punch to your sentences.
The first is to write your speech as something to be heard, not to be read. Yes, the words may look nice on paper, but people are going to be listening, not reading. So write the way you would speak. Practice your speech out loud and record yourself. If a sentence sounds robotic, that is usually a sign that it needs to be revised.
The second is something about which I have written before, but it is worth repeating; namely, that you should write your speech out, not in paragraphs, but rather as a poem. This will allow you to get a sense for the rhythm of the words, the cadence, where to pause, where to place the emphasis. Even if you do not read your speech, crafting it this way will help you formulate your ideas, choose the right words and deliver them well.
By way of example, here is the second paragraph of Gary Provost’s advice above, rewritten as a poem:
I vary the sentence length, and I create music.
The writing sings.
It has a pleasant rhythm,
a lilt, a harmony.
I use short sentences.
And I use sentences of medium length.
And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested,
I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length,
a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo,
the roll of the drums,
the crash of the cymbals—
sounds that say listen to this,
it is important.
Notice how each line ends with a powerful word. Notice, also how I have sometimes split a single sentence into multiple stanzas. Doing so makes the pauses and points of emphasis more obvious.
For more information about speechwriting—and a free speechwriting course—check out Global Speechwriter, the website of my friend, Brent Kerrigan. Brent has a wealth of speechwriting experience and knows his stuff.