How to Write a Speech in the Era of the Short Attention Span

When people think of great speakers in American history, their minds often go to political leaders or activists driving social change. Historically, it has been difficult for a business leader to build a reputation as a captivating public speaker, but a notable handful have defied the odds.

Perhaps the most famous example is Steve Jobs. Nearly 20 years ago Jobs addressed Stanford University graduates in what would become known as the Apple founder’s greatest speech of all time. There are several lessons from that speech that can be applied today - grabbing your audience’s attention with a deeply personal story, showing unparalleled authenticity, including timely and relevant points, and so on.

But audiences have drastically changed since that day in 2005. Research has shown that the average time that a person can focus on one thing has dropped from around 2½ minutes to around 45 seconds.

Let’s explore how you can engage your audience,  keep their attention, and take your speech from good to great.

Know Your Audience - And Your Dream Headline

The single most important piece of information to know before you start writing your speech is who your audience is. Ask yourself: Who is in the room? Who else will watch or read about this? What is the right tone for this audience? Here are some tangible tips that can help you get your message across no matter who you’re speaking to:

  • It’s all about timing: It’s said that speakers only have 30 seconds to grab their audience’s attention before they stop paying attention. Don’t waste too much time on introductions and thank yous - focus on making your audience sit up and take notice right off the bat.
  • Take the “be brief, be gone” approach: The best piece of advice I’ve gotten as a speechwriter is that nobody really wants to listen to another person talk for more than ten minutes. Be short, direct, and to-the-point.
  • Nail down your core message: Whether or not the event is open to the press, think about your dream news headline that could come out of the speech. This will force you to nail down a clear, 6-8 word message before you even put pen to paper. Make sure you hit your core message points 2-3 times in the speech so they resonate with the audience.

Make It Personal

Personal stories are the easiest way to connect to your audience, and knowing what stories will create an impact is crucial. A bad speech is one that doesn’t tell stories. A really bad speech is one that tells boring ones. If you can, try to pull at your audience’s heartstrings.

Steven Aberle, co-founder and CEO of Rohirrim, is a great example of a business leader with a strong personal story. A former proposal writer stuck in the brutal, seemingly endless cycle of drafting RFP responses, Steven’s turning point came when he was forced to miss his daughter’s birthday party because he was stuck on an hours-long Saturday call to finish a proposal.

This is exactly the type of personal story that resonates with audience members. Some might be parents who have missed important milestones for work. Others may simply know all too well how time consuming and frustrating the approval process can be. Whatever the case, inserting some personal anecdotes into your speeches can help you form a direct and memorable connection with your audience.

Visuals Are Your Friend

Whether it’s a product demo, PowerPoint presentation, or a brief video, some of the best speeches are broken up with visuals. Especially if you’re planning to speak for longer than 10 minutes, you don’t want to risk your audience getting bored - and speaking directly to them with no visual aid puts you at a higher risk of people looking at their phones or nodding off.

Visuals can go beyond the expected, and you should explore how you can get creative with it. For example, in 2019 Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer spoke to business leaders at the state’s annual policy conference. Whitmer’s speech included visuals of postcards her office had received from public school students about what they wanted the next governor to focus on. This was an unexpected addition that tugged at the audience’s heartstrings and injected some humor into the presentation.

Whitmer’s speech included visuals of postcards


Delivering a great speech starts with knowing your audience, your strengths, and your core message. While your speech should be short and to the point, you shouldn’t shortchange the prep time that has to go into it. After you put pen to paper, practice the speech several times out loud and make edits accordingly - just because something looks good on paper doesn’t mean it will sound good in person. Practicing the speech will also give you a better sense of which sections are worth keeping, and which can be cut for the sake of time.

Having a firm grasp on these things can help you captivate your audience from the moment you step up to the podium until days later when the last headline is published.

Let’s talk.