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How to Give a Great Speech

featured image at top of post: large conference room

A good speech is probably the most effective tool for delivering your message. Unlike an interview, a speech gives you a chance to prepare what you want to say and how to say it. You make the points you want to make; in the order you want to make them. It gives you the opportunity to leave the audience with the message you want to get across.

Getting Ready

Delivering a successful speech and the overall impression you give, depends on how well you prepare. This requires having a thorough understanding of your topic and a well-developed presentation. Additionally, it helps to know the stage, what you wear, how you stand and gesture, and how you will handle questions.

Know Your Topic

You probably have a good grasp of the topic on which you have been asked to speak or you would not have been asked. However, if you are still relatively new to the subject area, consider talking to others who have more expertise and doing more through research to prepare.

Being familiar with related topics and pertinent current events is important, particularly if you will be answering questions. If speaking out of town, find out if any local issues or events are related to your speech topic.

Know Your Audience

Depending on the context of the speaking engagement, you might be able to some broad generalizations about the audience. However, don't make too many assumptions. Consider how much the audience already knows about your topic. Consider these questions:

  • Will there be anyone who has a special or niche interest?
  • Depending on your topic, will there be a contingency who have already taken a position about the topic?
  • Will your approach be considered neutral, for, or against?

Answers to these questions should shape your speech and prepare you for follow-up questions.

Script Preparation

Many public speaking experts recommend writing out your speech, even if don’t plan on using notes. Doing this makes it easier to determine whether you are within your time limit and gives you something to edit. Often speakers end up cutting their original manuscript in half to stay within the allotted time. If you intend to memorize your speech, you will need something to read and memorize.

EXPERT TIP
If you use your written speech during delivery, make the font extra-large, in all capital letters, and on half of an 8-1/2 x 11-inch piece of paper or 5 x 7-inch cards. Mark pauses with a slash (/) and circle or underscore words and phrases requiring emphasis. Make sure to number the pages or cards.

Language

The make-up of your audience should influence the language you use in your speech. Don't use technical terms with a nontechnical audience. Avoid phrases or nomenclature your listeners might not understand. Never use acronyms; they may exclude some audience members from your message. Use short sentences.

Above all, speak in a way that is natural for you. Stay away from compound sentences, multisyllable words, parenthetical phrases and qualifications, clichés, and overused phrases such as "you know."

Segments of the Speech

Your speech should have a clear opening, body, and ending. This not only lets the audience focus on what you are saying but it helps you convey the message you want to convey. Each segment provides an opportunity to engage the audience and build upon your overall message.

Opening

A strong opening statement will grab attention and set the tone for the rest of the speech. Right away establish the purpose and importance of your speech. There are several strategies you can use.

  • Express your main point in an assertive manner
      e.g. The company believes...
  • Ask a rhetorical question
      e.g. What is really needed to beat the pandemic?
  • Include one or a series of startling facts
      e.g. Are you aware that... ?
  • Use a human-interest story
  • Tell a joke or humorous anecdote
    One that bridges smoothly into the body of your speech will not only attract your listeners' attention, but also help you to relax.

No matter how you choose to begin, be sure it's pertinent to the topic of your speech and launches you toward making your main points.

Side Note: If you’ve been invited to give the speech, acknowledge the person who introduces you and thank the group for attending.

Body

The body of your speech needs to support your topic, main message, and key points. There are many ways you can deliver the information you want to convey. However, avoid trying to use all of them as some may not be appropriate for the situation.

Anecdotes and Humor

Anecdotes and jokes, when chosen carefully and delivered naturally, are good tools to connect to your audience. Of course, humor should always be in good taste; in no way should it offend your audience.

Keep your humor relevant. Some apt humor within the speech can help maintain your rapport with your audience. A totally irrelevant joke will be recognized for what it is.

Not everybody can handle humor without some practice. Memorize and practice delivering anecdotes and one-liners because they fall flat if you read them. A pause is essential before the punchline and at the end of an anecdote.

Generally, if you are good at telling jokes privately, you will be able to joke publicly. If you're not a funny person, don't try to be funny at the podium.

Statistics

Like humor, statistics are desirable, but too much data is hard for a listener to absorb. Save large tables of data, charts and graphs for a handout or packet the audience can take with them. For your presentations, use statistics and date to create complete thoughts or comparisons.

Visuals

Good visuals add impact to your words. They should, however, support your speech and not overpower it.

Most people today use slide decks that can include charts, maps, and pictures along with text. However, don’t rule out the use of printed jumbo charts, maps, pictures, or other "show and tell" items. They can provide variety to your presentation but make sure everyone in the audience is able to see what you are showing.

Avoid complexity. Each visual should, at a glance, convey a single idea. The more "pictographic" a visual aid is, the better. With data and statistics only show the specific numbers or percentages that you mention.

Ending / Conclusion

The ending of your speech should be synopsis of what you covered by summarizing your main point and repeating your objectives.

A good strategy is to clue the audience that you are about to wrap up. For example, "Before I finish, there's one point I want to emphasize."

End compellingly or give your audience something extra like "In conclusion, let me add just one bit of advice."

Let your audience know how to connect with you via a website, email, or social media. If you will be presenting at at future meetings or seminars, it is appropriate to mention them at this point. Be open to answering questions, if the event is structured to include them.

Delivery

A speech is only as effective as its delivery.

No matter how much time you spent writing your speech, your effort will be wasted if...

  • You appear overly nervous
  • You speak in a monotone
  • You appear ridge or unmoving
  • The audience can't hear you
  • Your visuals can’t be seen by everyone

Practice, Practice, Practice

Practice multiple times. To give a natural delivery, you need to be as familiar with the text you’ve written as possible. It helps alleviate nerves the more accustom you are with the flow of the speech.

Practice delivering your speech by yourself in front of a mirror, in front of a family member or co-worker, and/or before a video camera.

This give an opportunity to test your anecdotes and jokes, as well as your stance and gestures. It allows you to check that your visuals are clear, pertinent, and emphatic.

Remember the Clock

Unless you are giving a keynote speech and have been asked to speak for a longer period of time, the best time frame for most speeches is 15 to 20 minutes, with another 10 minutes for questions and answers. Regardless of the subject matter and delivery method, you will lose your audience if you go on longer than this.

If you been given a specific amount of time to speak that is shorter than 15-20 minutes, be vigilant about staying within that time limit. Exceeding your time limit will only create a dissatisfied audience and risk losing their respect.

Your Stage and Props

Arrive at the speech site early so you have a chance to check the ambiance, chat with your hosts and the person who will introduce you and meet the other speakers if there are any.

Note the location from which you will be speaking. If using a slide deck take note of the screen and projector location. Find out how much of the set up you will be responsible for. If using other visual aids, be sure they can be seen by everyone in the audience.

Take time to be sure your presentation slides are in the right order. If possible, see if you can run them through the projector before the audience arrives to identify and address any technical malfunctions.

Your Appearance

Your speech actually starts the moment you enter the room. Dress in a manner that makes you comfortable. However, be aware of nature of the event and audience. For instance, you may be most comfortable in shorts and a t-shirt but that might not be appropriate at an awards ceremony.

Check your clothing and overall appearance before going on stage. That will give an opportunity to catch spinach in your teeth or a coffee stain on your shirt.

Eye Contact and Body Signals

Think of your audience in three segments‚ left, center, and right. Look at, and speak directly to, individuals in each segment.

When speaking from behind a lectern, don't grab onto it and hold tightly with both hands. Your body will tense up and you'll appear even more nervous than you are. If the microphone is removable, you may wish to pick it up and move about.

Gestures can help you look more relaxed and add emphasis to what you are saying. However, like every other element of your speech, they need to be controlled and pertinent. Don't "dead pan." Smile, nod, shrug your shoulders‚ move naturally and appropriately. Stand tall, with your head level and your shoulders square.

While you are speaking, be aware of the signals your audience is sending you. Are they looking right at you or are their eyes wandering? Are they sitting up and listening or slouched and dozing? If you begin to lose too much of your audience, you may have to change your style.

Voice and Diction

A clear, strong voice sets off a speech just as an attractive frame enhances a picture. The general tendency is to speak too softly, so speak louder than you consider normal. Good volume communicates confidence.

A monotone is boring, so change volume and pitch during your speech. Absorb this technique by listening to newscasts and commercials on radio and television. Note how they create interest by changing voice pitch and emphasis. Work to develop enthusiasm and "sell" in your voice.

Diction is important. You need to enunciate without going overboard and appearing stilted. The bottom line is to be clear while appearing natural.

Speed

People tend to speak too fast. Pacing and pausing are among the most effective techniques for public speaking. Change speed: go faster for excitement and slower for suspense. You do not have to keep talking. Pauses attract attention and may even trigger applause after strong statements.

Jennifer

Jennifer has 15+ years of public speaking experience - ranging from groups of 5 to 5000. She draws from her experience as an instructor, academic, and librarian to help others with their presentation skills. When not presenting she loves creating and designing online courses, video, images, slide decks, handouts, conference posters, and infographics.

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