February 2, 2018

Books for Speakers: On Speaking Well

Speaker's Bookshelf , Public Speaking , Resources , Instruction , Public Speaking Books

A favorite question in every class we lead is this: What public speaking books do you suggest we read? Our shelves are loaded with choices. Every month we'll be featuring a pick from new books we've come across and old favorites we go back to again and again.


“Speeches are not magic. Reduced to its essentials, a speech is a combination of information and opinion written on paper and spoken with the mouth. If you can have a thoughtful conversation you can probably write and give a thoughtful speech.”

– Peggy Noonan, in the introduction to "On Speaking Well"


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

By Peggy Noonan

Oprah Winfrey’s impressive speech at The Golden Globe Awards has been the subject of discussion in our public speaking programs ever since.

These are some of the questions and comments we’re hearing:

I wish I could speak off the cuff like that.

Did she memorize what she was going to say?

What do you think made people respond to it so strongly?

Well of course it was good. She’s Oprah.

We don't have first-hand knowledge of how Oprah prepared for that speech, but we do have our ideas of how she might have.

Some of our insight comes from reading On Speaking Well by Peggy Noonan.

In the section “Writing Speeches for Other People,” she describes her positive experience working with Oprah. Here’s how that story begins:

Once I worked on a speech with Oprah Winfrey. I learned something important from that experience.

It is that when you come right down to it, to produce a good speech a collaboration has to have two things. One is a writer who can do the work. The other is a principal who understands that work—who understands its parts, what works and what doesn’t, someone who understands the requirements. And meets them in terms of engagement and involvement.

We appreciate Noonan's thoughtful approach to all aspects of speaking.

You’ll find good advice throughout On Speaking Well—not one-size-fits all instruction but thoughtful observations from a former speech writer for U.S. presidents who’s worked with a variety of speakers—exactly the sort of instruction we strive to provide in our Executive Seminar and on-site programs. (No wonder we feel such an affinity for this book.)

As for Oprah’s speaking, those of us at The Buckley School who've seen her speak in person (we’re looking at you Jenny Maxwell) noted that she approaches the lectern with a notebook and an obvious plan.

We posted video and a link to the transcript of Oprah’s speech at The Golden Globes here. Below, you’ll find her eulogy for Dr. Maya Angelou, a speech that shows her both ad libbing a story and working from prepared remarks, in a very personal message:

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