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Speech Writing - How Did Bill Gates Prepare His Harvard Commencement Speech?

Ugur Akinci

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Speechwriting is a hard-to-master art form. It requires a lot of background knowledge on the part of the writer that cannot be acquired overnight. But that's not enough.

A good speech also requires a clear core message. The writer, the speaker and the audience should all be able to answer the following question right away - “what was this speech all about?”

It is also important to adjust the speech to the audience and the setting, or the occasion. A high school commencement speech should not read like one delivered at a gridiron or political fund raiser event.

To understand the kind of effort and care that goes into a great speech, I'd like to share with you the number of steps Microsoft's Bill Gates went through while preparing his June 7, 2007 Harvard Commencement Speech.

Gates started to prepare his June 2007 speech back in December 2006. He used a Gates Foundation staff member to vent out his initial ideas. Gates and the staffer, who had been a writer for the online magazine Slate, worked on several ideas and drafts through six brainstorming sessions. The result was six drafts of the same speech, writing “some of the longest ones himself, ” according to the Wall Street Journal.

To fortify himself and focus on a central concept, Gates read historic speeches delivered by Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Enrico Fermi, Robert Koch, Bill Clinton, Bono, and George Marshall.

In January he sent e-mails to his trusted staffers asking for their contributions and ideas.

In May, Gates visited Warren Buffet in Omaha, Nebraska to get his opinion and ideas on the speech as well.

Then he rehearsed the speech by reading it to himself on a podium at his office. He sent another copy to Buffet and the next day “he read the speech aloud to his wife on the private plane ride to Boston, " according to WSJ.

And on June 7, 2007 Gates was at long last ready to deliver the speech that he worked on for over 6 months. That is the kind of energy and analytical focus with which Gates prepares for a public communication opportunity.

Is it a wonder that he is one of the most successful businessmen the world has ever known?


Ugur Akinci, Ph. D. is a senior writer and web content consultant with 20 years of experience.

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