Powerful Sentence Structure for Your Speech

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:

Now listen.
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.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Sophie. We share the same passion. Whether I am giving a speech or doing improv theatre, there is a real rush to being in front of an audience!

  1. Interesting. I have been doing this intuitively. It must be because I have sang in choirs all my life and I am also a professional dancer. Or was, anyway. Music is an intrinsic part of life. It is intertwined in my DNA.

  2. Thanks John for sharing and spreading more good public speaking ideas & pointers.

    I particularly appreciate your final point of not writing out a “final or reading script” in paragraphs but as a poem. It is surprising how infrequently this approach is actually used.

    I find this approach has an additional benefit. It is a good way to make a final reading script when I do not have the luxury of memorizing the speech. Each line is a “snap-shot” or “chunk”. This makes “never-read-and-speak-at-the-same-time” more achievable. I have described it in more detail in a recent answer to a QUORA question: Point 3. May be of interest to your readers: https://www.quora.com/How-do-I-remember-so-many-informations-for-presentation-or-speech/answer/Rashid-Kapadia?srid=HrGm&share=2875c063

    Good Luck … Rashid

    1. Thank you, Rashid. And a terrific answer on Quora! In fact, I use the “memory palace” to remember lists of things. I learned it years ago from a cassette tape that my father played for me on battery-operated tape recorder during a long-distance car trip. I was fascinated by the concept. In my case, I use 20 different parts of a car to remember lists of 20 and more things.

      1. Very good to note that you appreciate the value of “memory palace” approach. I cannot recommend “Moonwalking with Einstein” highly enough. I think it is specially important to expose children to this technique. After all “our lives are the sum of our memories”.

  3. That’s a great example from Gary, so thanks for sharing it.

    If your mind’s at all like mine, you’ll have specific sentence lengths in mind for each highlight colour you use. I’m curious what those numbers were!

    What a fantastic tip about writing out a speech as a poem. Currently I tend to use bold text to show where I’ll stress a word, but sometimes I end up with too many of those and it sounds unnatural. So I’ll have to try your “stanza” method.

    P.S. The photo of a stone wall really reminds of a picture of multicoloured tiles that I used in my post called “How consistent should you make your slides?” My answer to that rhetorical question is “Go for cohesion instead.” Just like samey sentences sound soporific, what I call “cookie-cutter consistency” on your slides puts people to sleep, too!

    1. Thanks, Craig. When I saw the writing example from Gary, I knew that I had to write about it. Of course, we speak differently than we write, but the principle of varying the length of our sentence or phrases is the same.

      Writing speeches out like a poem is something I started doing a long time ago. I remember reading somewhere that when Winston Churchill reviewed his speeches that he had had typed up for him, he would insist that each line had to end with a word that could be emphasized. Ending a line with a “the” or an “an” was not acceptable!

  4. This approach could work for reading too. Anything to energise an email. Cut though the clutter.

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