As you hang up the telephone, the icy fingertips of panic grip your stomach; your heart races. Your most recent project was delivered on time, within budget, and is approaching payback one year ahead of schedule. As a result, your Industry Association wants you to address their annual convention. They believe you have something to offer. Here are some steps to ease your palpitations.
Remember that all great speeches, and even some not so great, require shape. The old saying is hard to beat: “Tell them what you will tell them; tell them; then tell them what you told them.”
“Shake hands with the audience.” You have something worthy of being said. Former Ambassador Robert Strauss used to begin his addresses like this: “Before I begin this speech, I have something to say.” This passage was always composed in a style that enabled him to reclaim a powerful tone for the instructive portion of his remarks. Put on your smile; calm your nerves, then get to work. You may want to start with a smashing one-liner or an anecdote.
Rise to the occasion. In other words, feel passionately about your topic. Recall old Uncle Ned’s tear jerking toast at the wedding? Even ordinary folks can deliver great moments of oratory if they rise to the occasion. Make sure the audience feels how important the topic is to you, so that they begin to think about why they should care.
Build clear and sensible transitions (segues) from one thought to the next. The biggest mistake speakers and writers make is to assume people will follow their leaps of logic. Spell out to the audience when you are taking a turn in your thoughts with phrases like: “As an example of this” or “This brings us to the larger problem of,” and so forth.
Focus. A good speech does not need to start out great and stay great to the finish. It engages the listeners. It makes allowances for a dip in interest in the middle. Then, it gathers anticipation for its key moment. John Stuart Mill, the political economist, defined the orator’s art this way: “Everything important to his purpose was said at the exact moment when he had brought the minds of his audience into the state most fitted to receive it.”
Add purpose. A speech should be made for a good reason. To inspire, to instruct, to rally, and to lead are noble purposes. To sound off, to feed a speaker’s ego, to flatter, or to intimidate are not.
Know your theme. If you cannot answer the question “what do you want to say?” in a single, declarative sentence, do yourself and the audience a favor: decline the invitation.
Write with one particular person in mind, someone you actually know. This helps you to keep the message real and personable. This helps you anticipate reactions and keep your language down to earth.
Deliver the goods. Delivery is the essence of eloquence. It requires practice, discipline, drill, and timing. You can be your own trainer. As you develop self-confidence, you put the audience at ease, or make them sit up. Your eye is in contact with the people, not the page. If looking at people makes you nervous, look between them, at the clock on the back wall, over somebody’s shoulder – as long as it seems you’re making eye-contact. Your professional passion is contagious. Use gestures to emphasize points, and make sure your tone of voice and facial expressions are appropriate for the topic.
Illustrate. Illustrations can come in the form of slides, visuals, stories, jokes, or dramatic gestures. Your goal is to make some portion of the speech stick to the mind of the audience–if someone asks about it afterwards, they should say something like, ‘I enjoyed the story Tom told about his sister,’ or ‘The pie chart of this year’s earnings was helpful.’
Give your audience a sense of completion. Bring them back to the beginning, but with a louder spirit. This can be done by starting the last paragraph with a quiet, declarative sentence; it should build in a series of semicolons; it should employ the puissance of parallelism; it should reach to the farthest rafter and reverberate with the action and passion of our time, and, forgetting all else, it should connect with, no, grab each listener by his or her lapels and shout to their hearts and souls to say, “This is the end of the best speech you will ever have the good fortune to experience!”
You may experience instant, sustained applause punctuated by the occasional “Bravo” and the ever-present pundit punk who wrinkles his brow and wonders aloud, “But what was really said?”
Each person in the audience experiences your speech as an individual. Speak to them as individuals, by using words like “you” and “your” instead of “all of you” or “everybody here”; it is more direct and compelling, and will engage each member of your audience, whether it be five or five thousand.
Focus your attention on one individual at a time, just as you would in normal, everyday conversation. This will help to relax you, and mitigate the fear of speaking to very large crowds. Shift your focus around the room, to different sections of your audience. By including every area, even when you might not be able see them individually, each person will feel as if you are speaking directly to them, not at them.
Most speakers deal with the eye contact issue by twisting their body from side to side. They look from side to side as if watching a tennis match. Don’t make this mistake. Make eye contact using comfortable, natural body and head movements with purposeful glances at different areas.
Smile from time to time but refrain from grinning like an idiot.
Consider your audience’s frame of reference. A simple way to do it is to think about: Who’s in the audience? Why are they here? And after hearing your speech what’s the first thing you would like them to do or say to someone else perhaps?
Don’t read your speech. Speak it from memory. You may miss a couple minor points (and even a major one), but if you can’t remember it long enough to say it, why would anyone else remember long enough to act on it?
If you are not a seasoned speaker, it is fine to read your speech as long as your delivery isn’t stilted and amateurish like a kid reading from a textbook. You may not have time for memorization. If not, don’t be embarrassed to read your speech. Getting your message out counts the most. Look up and smile from time to time to let the audience know you haven’t forgotten them.
Almost everyone can remember an early experience when they were obsessed with memorization and suddenly drew a blank. It can derail a speech. Be comfortable with your subject and have the bullet points on a few 3×5 cards. Relax and don’t be anal about flawless delivery; people probably won’t hold it against you.
Use a dramatic pause to emphasize an important point. Stop talking for a second and look as if you are pondering your next words.
Vary the speed of delivery and the loudness of your voice. Talk faster and louder when moving on to a new thought. Speak slowly and lower your voice for emphasis.
Act as if you lived for this one speech your whole life and give it your all
You can fight off stage fright and fear of failure by knowing your subject. Having a commanding knowledge of your topic will show in you, just like not knowing your topic will show-even more so.
Practice your speech with someone else if possible, and ask him/her for input.
People say “Thank you” to signal that, yes, the speech is over. It is a very weak ending to a speech. You really shouldn’t thank the audience, any more than they should thank you. You have given the audience a significant experience and they have given you their polite (or enthusiastic) attention. Call it even.
Let the final, forceful sentence be the natural ending of your speech. Signal the end simply by smiling and stepping away from the lectern or podium. If you didn’t use a lectern (always a good idea), smile and wave, take a bow, or move to shake hands with someone to signal the end of your dazzling performance. The speech itself might have been a snore fest but at least you’ll have a polished exit.
If the speech is followed by questions/answers, it’s OK to come BACK to the podium or front of the room when the applause dies down. You don’t have to stay up there.
If you are delivering a eulogy or some other solemn address, ditch the smile. Keep your voice and expression solemn and serious at all times. Just emulate a newscaster when they are bringing sad news.
Legendary Actor Anthony Quinn used this technique to give him confidence before an audience: Imagine a ray of energy emanating from deep in the earth and radiating up through your heels, up your spine, and then throughout your body. Keep this image in the back of your mind as you deliver your lines (er, speech).
If you have a lot of time to practice, you can develop some gestures. Gestures are better than keeping your hands in your pockets or folded with the fingers laced. However, if your gestures are awkward and distracting, keep your hands in your pockets.
Watch JFK’s inaugural address for pointers on gestures. JFK invented stabbing your closed hand forward while touching your thumb with your curved forefinger. Every major politician now uses that gesture.
Think hard before incorporating flip charts or a dry-erase board into your presentation. For one thing, you don’t want to poison the air with the dreadful fumes emitted by dry-erase markers. Eventually you will find yourself talking to your flip chart and not the audience. The audience will be distracted by your scribblings or watching you fumble with your exhibits. Insecure speakers like stage props because they take the focus off them. Whatever best suits you.
Who better to write your introduction than you? Before your speech, contact the person who will be introducing you and give them your introduction. Unless they are a total creepazoid, they will be thankful that you saved them the chore of drafting your introduction.
Be conscious of ummms and ahhhs. Speakers use these as filler for pauses, to let people know they haven’t finished their thought. They make you sound hesitant and unsure, however. Too many ummms and ahhhs get to be annoying. It’s OK to let silence intrude on your sentence. When you wean yourself of ummms, ahhhs, and y’knows you will be taking a big step toward effective public speaking.
Avoid a sing-song delivery, especially the mannerism known as “uptalk.” Uptalk is ending sentences and phrases with a question mark? Not only is it annoying? It makes you sound immature? And very unsure of yourself? No one will be able to stand to listen to you?
Start writing as if you are creating an essay or informative article. When you are comfortable with your draft, read it aloud. Listen to a recording. The style should be different than a typical essay or article. You can’t have paragraphs that drone on. Rather than pack your talk with boring facts and figures, give them a handout (AFTER your talk). It’s OK to repeat or revisit important points for emphasis.
The type of event you attend will determine the length of your speech. Consider that the average speaker speaks 100 to 135 words per minute. Below are sample speech lengths:
Standard keynote speaker: 18 – 22 minutes (est. 1800 to 2970 words)
Motivator: 12 – 15 minutes (est. 1200 to 2025 words)
Don’t be a windbag. Time your speech in a few practice runs. If it goes more than five minutes you had better be a spellbinding speaker. The typical amateur speaker will have the audience checking their watches after about three minutes. Remember, Abe Lincoln only needed a minute or two for the Gettysburg Address.
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