Speechwriting for Your Institution’s Leaders: Why Speeches Fail

illustration of writing a document


Speechwriter and policy analyst Chuck Toney suggests 2 crucial preparatory steps that can make all the difference between boring and compelling speeches:

  • Identify the speaker’s strategic messages
  • Identify the speaker’s unique voice

For specific examples, please listen to this free podcast from Chuck Toney and Academic Impressions:

It’s likely that at some point we have all seen a convocation, state-of-the-university, or other speech by an institutional leader fall flat — even when the subject matter of the speech was not itself intrinsically dull. Yet it has rarely been more important for presidents and cabinet members to be able to speak compellingly and directly to a wide array of constituents, as institutions are increasingly called upon in the public sphere to make strong cases for funding, for their impact and outcomes, and even for their relevance.

To learn why well-intentioned speeches by campus leaders sometimes fail — and how to help your academic leaders prepare better for them — we turned this week to speechwriter and policy analyst Chuck Toney, who serves as assistant to the president of the University of Georgia. He offers these tips in avoiding two common pitfalls:

  • Lack of research into one’s audience
  • Failing to engage one’s audience in the subject matter from the start


“Know the audience. Know what they know. Know what they expect. Know their biases. This is not the same as tailoring your speech to the audience — that’s not what I mean. But you can lose your audience very quickly if you don’t make the speech meaningful to them in some way. Invite the audience to care about the topic you care about.”
Chuck Toney, U of Georgia

“If you’re a college or university president,” Toney explains, “and you are going to talk to a rotary club with a lot of business leaders, and you need to talk about why the liberal arts or the dramatic arts are important, make the topic meaningful to that audience without losing your basic point of how the liberal arts are important to a broad-based education. If you don’t tie that topic to their interests and concerns and make it important to them, you will lose the chance to really convey your points to this key audience. If you want to talk about agricultural research to a community of retired elementary school teachers, note how better agricultural production matters to them at the grocery store and matters to the better nutrition and development of their grandchildren and the children in the schools they know.”

We asked Toney for a checklist of questions that campus speechwriters or assistants to the president and vice presidents of the institution can ask of a representative of the intended audience when scheduling a speech to an external, off-campus group. He suggests these questions:

  • Tell me about your group (ask an open-ended question to invite them to describe their group and its interests)
  • How many people will be there?
  • Who are they?
  • What do they do?
  • What other speakers have they heard recently?
  • What speakers have they enjoyed hearing, and what were their topics?
  • What do you think they would like to hear from Dr. ____? What do you think they’d like to know about our university?

“If nothing else,” Toney notes, “That last question gives me insight into their expectations. People like to talk about their organizations. Ask very open-ended questions.”

Engaging the Audience in Your Subject Matter

“My goal in the opening minute of a speech is always the “Hmmm” factor. Can we tell them something they don’t know about UGA that makes that impression? What can we say to them that they didn’t already know about a subject they thought they knew a lot about?”
Chuck Toney, U of Georgia

Toney warns that speeches often misfire simply because the opening remarks are aimed either “too high” (for example, if an esoteric subject is not made immediately relevant to the audience) or “too low” (for example, when a speaker begins with facts the audience already knows). “You want to start with new information about a topic that is meaningful to this audience,” Toney suggests.

Here are two examples.

  • An institutional leader is speaking to an external audience within the surrounding community. Because the audience is already familiar with some basic information about the institution, the speaker opens not with a shortlist of the institution’s strengths, but instead offers information and perspective that confronts misperceptions about the institution (such as misperceptions about the admissions process, athletics, student behavior, or the political leanings of the faculty).
  • An institutional leader is addressing an audience from another geographical region who lack a baseline of knowledge about the institution; in this case, the speaker opens with the one thing that will be likeliest to grab their attention and challenge any assumptions they’ve brought to the table; Toney uses the example of a speech by a leader at the University of Georgia emphasizing that UGA is the nation’s first state-chartered university.

“Challenge their assumptions about the institution. If you have an audience thinking or rethinking something key about your institution in the first 35-40 seconds, they’re already engaged. A good speaker and a good speech ought to be able to carry them through to the end, if you have their attention at the start.”
Chuck Toney, U of Georgia