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On Speaking Well: How to Give a Speech With Style, Substance, and Clarity

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For anyone who fears the thought of writing and giving a speech--be it to business associates, or at a wedding--help is at hand. Acclaimed presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan shares her secrets to becoming a confidence, persuasive speaker demystifying topics Complete with lessons, tips and memorable examples, On Speaking Well shows us how to create forceful, persuasive, relevant speeches that will resonate with our audiences. Engaging, informative, and always entertaining, this is undoubtedly the authoritative how-to guide for anyone writing or giving a speech

224 pages, Paperback

First published February 17, 1999

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About the author

Peggy Noonan

31 books128 followers
Peggy Noonan is an author of seven books on politics, religion and culture, a weekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal, and was a Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. She is considered a political conservative.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 56 reviews
Profile Image for Josephine.
138 reviews17 followers
April 22, 2012
I can’t really say that I found Peggy Noonan’s “On Speaking Well” particularly useful — I grabbed a copy because she was a former speechwriter for Presidents Reagan and Bush (the first).

If you’re ever in the business of writing for someone else, you’re probably better off reading books like “Kennedy” by Theodore Sorensen (which I actually started yesterday).

Sometimes, you can learn more about what might work simply by reading about someone else’s experience rather than reading a reference book like this.

The slim section on writing speeches for other people was the only part of the book that was interesting — for me, anyway.

There were a lot of things I could relate to all too well.

In one chapter, she writes about Kerry Tymchuk, who was a speechwriter for Bob Dole.

Tymchuk recounts:
"It hurts when Dole doesn’t use a line that I know would work. In the convention speech process there was a part of the speech where he talks about America and its ideals. I suggested, “It’s these ideals that make America at 220 years the youngest nation on earth — it’s these ideals that make me at seventy-three years the youngest man in the hall.” And at the end Dole laughed and said, “Strom Thurmond probably thinks he’s the youngest man in the hall.” And he took it out. It hurt. Those things always hurt." (p.112)

I get it.

I know it sounds almost childish and pathetic to say that “it hurts” but that’s exactly how it feels.

You know in your gut that something would not only work well, but sound right — but when the speaker veers off script and ad libs with something else, you just have a moment where you actually question your work and feel like there’s just no trust there.

Here’s another thing I could easily relate to:

"Everyone who writes speeches for other people knows the horror of the vetting or editing process. The writer writes, and then the aides of the person for whom the speech has been written descend upon the text to make their changes. This can be frustrating. For one thing, the aides are not usually themselves writers or particularly sensitive to the written word…most people can’t help fiddling with a text. They see themselves as writers because after all they are: They’ve written letters to their parents, they wrote papers at school. And if they’re writers, why can’t they rewrite your sorry prose?" (p.119-120)

Finally, here’s another tid bit from the book that I related to:

"If you are a writer, you might do the best work of your life, but if the person you’re writing for isn’t really involved, or can’t really tell that it is good work, or why and in what way it is, then they’ll never understand or appreciate the speech. And if they don’t understand and appreciate it, they’ll never absorb it and make it their own. They’ll fiddle with it, fret over it, and have their friends take things out and put things in. Which means a committee will have written it. Which means it won’t be any good." (p.127-128)

Again, I get this.

Working on someone else’s speeches means you have to — before anything else is done — forge a good working relationship with them. You have to be able to hear them say the words you’ve written — but to get to that point, you have to have enough face-time with the person.

All of these are frustrations that speechwriters can easily relate to — but if you’re starting out and want a good primer on how to write a good speech, I’d say skip this one.

If you want to write a good speech, you need to establish a solid working relationship with the person you’re writing for — and from there, it gets easier.
2,361 reviews31 followers
December 30, 2015
With a week off from work for the holidays, I have undertaken a reading binge. Remembering there was a list of books I had highlighted on my Amazon Wish List, I decided to knock them out.

Peggy Noonan is a well-respected speech writer of Reagan and Bush 41, among others. The little I have read/seen of her made a favorable impression. As an aspiring speaker (ha!), I had this book as something to read.

Like all books, it seems, on public speaking, this book attempts to do it all. And because of that, it fails. It is a superficial abstract of a very serious endeavor. That there is lengthy discussion of writing speeches for others here demonstrates that this is a general book, not a behavior-changing book.

Anyone remotely familiar with public speaking will recognize the topics (be genuine, have something to say, humor, etc.). Some of Noonan's advice is at odds with newer speakers (Q&A, for instance).

But the failure of speaking advice is more than compensated for by wisdom of her experience. She delves into many speeches and the power and (in)effectiveness of them. That is the strength of this book; Noonan has lived this life and her commentary on important speeches is masterful. Her use of Mother Theresa's speech as how breaking all the rules can work is priceless (as was the speech).

Noonan, of course, is the author of Reagan's "Challenger" speech. She takes the reader into the backstory of that speech and the initial thought that it had failed. That it is still quoted and referred to three decades later is a testament to her ability.

Noonan is a wonderful writer and this was an enjoyable read. I suspect she and I would get a long well if we knew one another. Her humor (detailing a Tom Wolfe speech as "the right stuff") is intelligent. I am writing this review at 2:30 a.m. as I was unwilling to go to bed until I finished the book. It was a one sitting adventure. :)

Speakers are not going to be blown away with this, but there are pieces that will add to one's understanding of the craft. For that, this is a good read.
Profile Image for Daniel.
8 reviews2 followers
August 10, 2007
i think she's an amazingly talented speech writer, i read her stuff for Reagan quite often, and i enjoyed the book's style...but she could have written with a less partisan bend.
Profile Image for Salem Lorot.
96 reviews26 followers
April 14, 2019
Thank you Peggy for this wonderful contribution. This book contains great pieces of advice that I find relevant to my daily work. I like it's presentation.
3 reviews13 followers
June 1, 2018
This book covers the essence of writing and giving a speech. The author has provided lots of examples, although revolving around politics, of an impactful speech. The best takeaways from this book, at least for me, is being yourself when giving a speech, and if possible, use humor whenever you can. Being yourself forces you to speak from your perspective, in a voice that is unique to you. And it doesn't hurt to add humor.

The book covers lot of advices, and even provides a structured way to write a speech(talking about that will just take away the selling point of the book). However, it spends a good chunk of the book on writing speeches for someone else. Something applicable to speech writers (only).
Profile Image for Omar.
96 reviews4 followers
June 19, 2018
Excellent book! More than just a dry textbook on writing and delivering speeches. Noonan delivers an excellent blend of humor, information, and practicality. I am already looking forward to reading more of Peggy Noonan's work!

"Remember that the most moving thing in a speech is always the logic—the case you are making, the problem you are outlining, the remedy you believe in and support. Don’t try to move people by manipulating them with phony emotionalism or faux poetry. If you make your case well and clearly and with some wit and feeling, you just may find that you’ve moved your audience to tears. But never try to make them cry, try to help them think."
Profile Image for Miranda.
108 reviews4 followers
December 17, 2019
There are plenty of practical tips for speechwriting here. I don't plan to give a speech any time soon, but I'm glad for the chance to learn.
Profile Image for Nathan Schrock.
76 reviews2 followers
February 3, 2022
This book, like most great non-fiction books, is great because it says something no one else seems to be saying; it challenges the popular way of thinking of what makes a good public speech.

She makes many great points and gives much great advice, but my main takeaway was that "the most moving thing in a speech is always the logic." She challenges the misconception that there is some kind of great magic in speaking well; that it requires great speech technique, eloquent phrasing, and masterful gestures. In fact, these don't make a great speech if you're not actually saying anything. Unfortunately, the modern misconception is that great speech-makers of the past were great because of how they said things, when in fact they were great because of what they said.

I read the book because I preach on a somewhat regular basis, and the things that make a good speech are, in many cases, what make a good sermon as well. Noonan's point here is especially applicable to preaching, for we have probably all had the experience of listening to a preacher who was a very gifted and eloquent speaker get up and speak for 30 or 40 minutes without actually saying anything. Unfortunately, eloquence will never make up for a lack of content.

Some quotes:
"Speeches actually have to say things. And great speeches are great because they say great things. Speeches that consist merely of the stringing together of pretty words and pretty sentiments are not great, and never live." (p. 75)

"Why the recent emphasis on the idea that a good speech must be flowery and sentimental and make people cry?
Reagan. He was so often moving and so often successful in his speeches that he came to set the standard. But Reagan as a speaker has been misunderstood. He was often moving, but he was moving not because of the way he said things, he was moving because of what he said. He didn't say things in a big way, he said big things." (p. 65)

"There's a whole industry out there that exists to tell people how to move their hands and faces when they're speaking in public. It's one of the reasons so many politicians and TV journalists sound alike and gesture alike: They've all been trained, often by the same professionals. I would advise you not to worry too much about presentation, and not to be eager to sound and move like everyone else. You don't have to be smooth; your audience is composed of Americans, and they've seen smooth. Instead, be you. They haven't seen that yet." (p. 204)
Profile Image for Nicolás Díaz.
72 reviews1 follower
April 27, 2018
Normally I don't read books by more conservative types, so the style of this book was somewhat refreshing.

It is unfortunate that it has been retitled "On Speaking Well", in a clear call-back to Zinsser's brilliant guide "On Writing Well". This isn't the On Writing Well of speeches, but the author clearly had a passion for speech writting and has the experience and the anecdotes to make a book on the subject work.

It is a bit uneven. I particularly hated the ending part. It was supposed to be about how you can break every rule exposed before (a necessary cliche), and it started with Mother Theresa. It mentioned a story about how once they were filming her in a dimly lit room, the footage was much brighter than expected, so obviously it was a message from god. My eyes rolled so hard that I think I hurt my brain.

Then the author told a story about how Mother Theresa gave a speech in Washington DC and spoke against abortion and contraceptives in a room filled with politicians from all stripes. (Obviously the Democrats were embarassed. Would she had retold this story if it was Republicans in an uncomfortable position?) What bothers me is not the partisanship but the fact that this chapter was not about rule-breaking at all. Mother Theresa made a controversial speech that offended some people with different sensitivities, but she did not talk ambiguities, or spoke long unpronouncable sentences, as the book previously thought. And the conclusion was that she could get away with thi because she was a saint? I mean, what was the point of this book again?

Anyways, I digress. Other than the last part, this book was fine.
Profile Image for Jeff Willis.
316 reviews4 followers
March 1, 2020
I have very mixed feelings about this book. At first, I wanted to give it five stars because the advice she gives about public speaking (which also actually translates remarkably well for creative writing in general) is exceptionally easy to follow and useful. So I was all in on this book for the first quarter of it or so. However, the later parts of the book made me want to give it three stars (or even less) because she does two things that I find infuriating... first, she lets her partisan bias show. I know she was a Republican speechwriter, but every anecdote in the book is either "Here's a great speech from a Republican and why this Republican is a genuinely brilliant politician" or "Here's a bad speech from a Democrat and why this Democrat is a terrible politician." Second, and perhaps far more grating, she doesn't take her own advice. Early in the book, she gives several genuinely insightful nuggets of wisdom about how to be concise, not bore the audience, know where the line is between making your point and going on too long... and later in the book she literally (and repeatedly) says things like, "May I indulge in just one more anecdote to make my point?" after already using two or three. I would have liked this book a lot more if she had been a little less politically biased and had followed her own advice. That said, based on the quality of the advice in the first part of the book (which I found genuinely helpful), I split the differences and gave this book four out of five stars.
Profile Image for John.
282 reviews23 followers
June 28, 2018
Yes, Peg Noonan is associated with The Right and has worked her way through the administrations of Reagan and both Bushes. She traces her development as a speechwriter. There is a slight hint of partisan bias in her assessments of various speakers. Bill Clinton comes under mild (but justifiable) criticism for his speaking skills.
Nevertheless, if you can look past the Republican tint, this is a very useful, practical book. It identifies best practices for both speechwriters and speakers and emphasizes the need for cooperation between the two. You get unique insights into the politicking and internal bickering that goes on behind the scenes. She describes her highs and lows as both a writer and speaker and cites many engaging historical examples.
The book may even deserve a "5" rating but her closing chapter on a Mother Theresa speech rubbed me the wrong way.
This book was written pre-Trump. Sadly, the art of public speaking is in steep, accelerated decline, lost in the fog of pseduo-facts, political correctness and divisive rhetoric. Today's "effective" speaker shocks and shouts in protracted rants liberally peppered with f bombs and slander. Both Left and Right are culpable. Time for an update, Peg.
Profile Image for Brian.
Author 15 books74 followers
March 11, 2019
Great book on public speaking by a former speech writer for Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Lots of helpful advice, spiced with interesting stories. Here's a few helpful appetizers:

"The most moving thing in a speech is always the logic."

"Reading is the collecting of intellectual income; writing is the spending of it."

"No one ever left a speech saying, 'he was too witty,' or I hated the way she made me laugh out loud.'"

"Don't worry about being smooth and slick. They're Americans, they've seen smooth and slick, they're not impressed."

"Graciousness springs from a generosity of spirit. It is good. And it can light a speech in subtle ways."

The story about Mother Teresa's speech at a National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C. in 1994 is worth the price of the book.
Profile Image for Calum Best.
14 reviews
May 24, 2020
Noonan provides a basic mental model of speeches. Much of her advice is common sense - you’ll catch yourself thinking “Oh yeah, of course,” not “Wow! I could never have thought of that!” The good sense she gives, common though it is, is useful for my novice-level public speaking ability. A more experienced speaker may not find much of value here.

Aside from the advice, Noonan liberally sprinkles in interesting anecdotes and personal commentary on famous speeches. Some references are obviously dated, and Noonan has a clear bias toward the political right.

I appreciated seeing Noonan’s writing; in many cases, she used turns of phrase that caused me to think about words and sentence structures in fresh ways.
Profile Image for Ryan.
139 reviews
January 27, 2022
Some good pointers if you are looking at giving toasts, eulogies, speaking before business groups, etc. But the entire second part of the book concerns writing speeches for other people (Noonan was a speech writer for Reagan), so it has a really narrow audience. She does quote some speeches at length and gives some analysis, which I found helpful and intriguing to hear an insider's perspective. If you pick it up to think about giving speeches in more mundane settings than Reagan's address after the Challenger explosion, this is worth a good skim, but probably not worth reading the whole thing.
Profile Image for Heather.
61 reviews
September 29, 2022
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Peggy Noonan delivered it in her classic style—with insight, good stories, pointedness and dry humor. I learned a lot about writing and giving speeches that differed from other books or trainings on public speaking that I’ve had to read or sit through (where I learned that to give a “good” speech you have to do certain hand movements, acting, and any other variation of non-authentic and emotionally manipulative tactics). Noonan’s advice on how to give a speech in a way that is genuine and simple resonates with what I’ve come to believe about public speaking over the years. She made clear what I couldn’t articulate completely in my mind.
Profile Image for M.
64 reviews3 followers
April 19, 2019
Probably useful if you have never written a toast, tribute, eulogy, or actual speech. Much of it is common sense. Noonan couldn't decide whether she wanted to write an advice book, a memoir, or a partisan attack and it shows. Read it if you know nothing and be prepared to skip over large chunks if it becomes irritating. The beginning and the very end are better than the middle. You could probably boil the good parts down to a page or two (if you are willing to skip the examples).
Profile Image for Kate O'Neill.
Author 5 books162 followers
August 21, 2019
I'll begin with a caveat: I'm a professional speaker, so I found this book both more interesting than someone might who doesn't speak for a living, and less relevant than, say, a politician might. But the parallels between, say, a campaign stump speech and a tech conference keynote are easy enough to draw, and the wisdom available for drawing upon is sound. The insight about getting clear on "what's the policy" is a timeless reminder to focus, and use the occasion of a speech to change minds. While Ms. Noonan and I differ on our political views, her ability to make such sense on the art of crafting memorable remarks is a great asset and one I will be revisiting often.
Profile Image for Max Rohde.
140 reviews3 followers
January 26, 2022
There is some solid, if straighforward, advice in this book on public speaking and communicating in general, such as to keep it short and to focus on one main point.

Unfortunately this advice was not heeded in the composition of this book itself. I would suggest to follow another piece of advice offered in the book; read things that are well-written to have their influence seep into your own writing, and in the interest of that, stay well away from On Speaking Well.
Profile Image for James.
71 reviews
October 31, 2021
I found this book helpful for thinking about how to prepare a speech. There are a lot of annecdoates from 1990s America (e.g., George Bush Sr., Bill Clinton, looking back at Reagan - there is even a Newt Gingrich reference - yucK!). In this sense, it is also a bit of a time capsule. I suppose some will say they saw the Republican Party's descent into insanity coming a long time ago, but I supspect even those who claim they did probably never imagined it would become this mad.
111 reviews
May 4, 2019
Good, even if the examples are a bit dated

Good advice and guidance, although the focus is on giving political speeches than business, workplace, or school talks. Lots of great examples of inspiring examples from 80s and 90s.
5 reviews
June 22, 2022
Peggy Noonan does it again

Ms. Noonan has graciously given her experienced thoughts about “Speaking Well”.
It is well for each of us to take time to think about her thoughts, advice and guidance so we might do better in getting our voice right so others might hear the message.
Profile Image for Gean Ockels.
Author 2 books1 follower
June 30, 2017
A must-read for speech writers. Good balance between tips & stories.
17 reviews
August 24, 2017
An excellent manual for anyone who may be asked to speak before a group. Covers tributes, toasts and eulogies as well. Noonan gives some excellent examples from politics and elsewhere.
49 reviews
August 31, 2017
Noonan offers more than the title suggests-- she includes historical anecdotes to accompany her keen advice.
Profile Image for Kris Hilburn Williams.
109 reviews6 followers
July 1, 2018
This book is mostly memoir, with tips for how to speak thrown in. I picked up the book after hearing Noonan speak earlier in the year.
Profile Image for John Majors.
Author 1 book15 followers
June 23, 2019
Great tips on how to write and deliver a speech. Emphasis seems to be on political speeches, but applies to all. Written by Reagan's former speechwriter.
366 reviews5 followers
June 3, 2021
Former president Reagan's speechwriter talks about speechwriting. There are some good hands-on nuggets of information- although sometimes it seems a bit folksy. An easy read.
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