How to knock ‘em dead… with your words.
They say the pen is mightier than the sword. While it is an appropriate idiom, it leaves a fair bit of breathing room for the passionate orator. So when you have an oral exam coming up, an acceptance speech for some award, or people just happen to be shouting ‘speech speech speech’ this article will hopefully help you out with a bit of speech writing and speech giving.
So first, why should you listen to me? Well, speeches are my hobby, I helped found the debating society here at CBS. That means twice a week I argue about things going on in the world, moral questions, and yes, it’s CBS, so even tax systems. If you’re hoping to figure out how to give a speech, getting advice from someone who does it often isn’t the worst idea.
Now, on to the speeches themselves. I’m going to break this article into 3 groups, first we’re going to talk about the structure behind a good speech, then how you’re going to fill that structure, and finally the odds and ends, pet peeves and pointers.
To start with, there’s speech structure. This is a starting place for new orators; when we do training at the debate club, for new members one of the first things we really try to work on is speech structure. The reason behind it is fairly simple; if the people listening can’t figure out what you’re trying to say, there’s little point in saying it to begin with. So make sure you have a structure, and everyone knows what the structure is. This could be an agenda, table of contents, or even just a rough overview (as done in this article) of what’s going to be said. Then at the end, provide a quick summary to remind them what you did say. It’s a lot easier to figure out what you’re saying if you tell me what you’re going to say, say it, and then tell me what you said. It sounds redundant, but your audience will love you.
Now what exactly that structure looks like is up to you. In every speech and public speaking workshop or practice I’ve ever been to I’ve been told to follow the rule of 3′s. This means have three major points. The rule does a couple of things for you: first, it forces you to condense everything you want to say into 3 manageable chunks. Second, it gives you the skeleton. Third… well there is no third, because it’s a silly rule. The argument is that 3 sounds nice, it allows you to prioritize framing with your first point, and hitting hard with your last point, and the middle point is just…. there? While it’s true that 3 sounds nice, it’s a rather arbetrary system which means it doesn’t suit every purpose. Yes, people will remember your last point better, and use your first point to guide assumptions, but in my experience, you can set up your speech in whatever way suits you, as long as it’s clear and not rushed. If three suits your message, go for it. But don’t be afraid to increase or decrease that number as you see fit. So long as your speech has a structure it means your message will be clear, and you will have a nice ‘fill in the blanks’ outline that just needs content.
So how do you go about preparing for a speech? Well, the obvious thing is to know your material. This goes without saying, as the content is the most important part of your speech, otherwise you wouldn’t be giving a speech in the first place. So once you know your subject then start working on your speech. Since I don’t know what your subject is, I’m going to present some various methods which you can use to prepare your speech.
The obvious one is to write out every word you plan on saying. The rule of thumb here is that it takes 1 hours work for every 1 minute of speech. Unfortunately, this isn’t strictly true, as it takes about 5 minutes for the first minute, and then scales exponentially from there. So you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you. The nice thing about scripting though is that you really get to work through your points and your structure is set in stone. That said, it makes it very difficult should you go off script, as your notes are buried behind all the pretty words you picked. So if you’re recording a movie or addressing a nation, your speech should probably be perfectly scripted.
But what if you’re not giving a state of the union address? Well, on the scale of Planning – Improvising the middle ground is cue-cards. The idea here is to have those little recipe cards, and write your ‘cues’ on them. This can be anywhere from the overall ideas (like for this article, it would be “structure, writing, pointers”), or an itemized list of sub-points you’re making with a quick word about how your argument goes. This lets you keep the structure, but frees you from reading the speech word-for-word.
The end of the scale is obviously improvising. For this, there is no easy way to get good, you need to know your subject extremely well, and you have to be able to think of your structure, your points, and how it all fits together while delivering a speech. Suffice to say, to be a good improvised speaker takes practice.
Obviously different cases call for different approaches. A presentation to the board while you’re an Intern? Fully prepared. That oral exam presentation? Cue-cards. A toast requested at last minute? Improvise.
Well, hopefully you know the structure of the speech, as well as how you planned to write it. What’s left are some quick tips;
- Confidence is key. Remember no one but you (and whoever helped you write the speech) can tell if you mess up. Also, remember that when you’re giving your speech, you’re in charge of the room. That room is yours, own it! Spend an extra 10 minutes breathing, or go to bed an hour early, do whatever you need to do to calm down and feel better.
- People will say “start with a joke”. The people who say this either don’t give speeches often, or are naturally funny people. It’s based on the idea that there’s a joke for every speech and that everyone is good at telling jokes. If you find the perfect one, go for it. But don’t shoe-horn in a joke because someone told you to. Same goes for quotes, I know it’s a bad sign if someone wants me to believe it’s a good idea because Oscar Wilde said something vaguely similar.
- Use your pauses. This sort of goes with point 2, because holding silence when you’re expected to speak takes a lot of guts. That said, they are potentially the most important aspect of your speech, because it allows the audience a chance to catch up. More likely than not, you’re nervous, and nervous people talk fast. If you take a break, that also means your speech will probably last as long as you expected it to last.
- If you’re working on a speech for a while, video-tape yourself giving one. Words sound so much different when you’re reading than when you’re speaking. You’ll find run-on sentences are a bit confusing, or you’ll find incomplete sentences a lot more convincing. You can also can count the number of times you say “uhmm” or “like” and start reducing those unhealthy speaking habits. If you’re not comfortable video-taping it, even just delivering it in front of a mirror or wall will help. Delivering it to a friend is even better.
- With powerpoints, remember your audience can read! Don’t just post your speech on some slides and present it. It’s a lot more effective either as a method of adding images to your speech to keep the audience engaged, as a vehicle to provide further visual data (graphs, charts etc) or as a method of keeping organized. If you’re going to post the power-point later, you can always attach your notes in the section at the bottom called “notes”
- Lastly, remember no one complains about a short presentation. If you feel you’ve said everything you came to say, don’t stay up there ruining all the excellent work you just did. Of course, take questions, but otherwise thank the audience and step down. After all that work preparing what to say, ad-libbing on stage doesn’t have a good chance of going well unless you do it often. Remember, you can’t say anything stupid or contradictory if you’re not on stage anymore.
So hopefully this has given you some insight into how to deliver the excellent speech you want. Remember, this comes with practice, so do that. Volunteer to give the toast, join a debate club practice, or even just give yourself a motivating speech in the mirror every morning. But if practice isn’t something you can fit in before your speech, remember what you’ve read today. How to structure your speech, and what sort of method you’ll use to prepare it, and finally a list of six useful points that hopefully will help you. After a while, you’ll start enjoying the attention and respect given to those fine orators. Who knows, maybe you’ll start hoping your friends get married just so you can give a speech.