If you can improve your speech-making, one benefit is that you will feel better before, while and after you speak. But other things may come, too. If you can hold an audience’s attention, persuade them, motivate them, make them laugh and inspire them . . . much good can come from that, both personally and professionally.
Why Are You Speaking?
The first question to ask when preparing a speech is ‘Why am I speaking?’. It sounds obvious, but many people overlook it. Sometimes, of course, the reason will be self-evident. If you are asked to speak at a funeral, your speech needs to be about the deceased. But what if you are a CEO and are asked to say a few words at the company’s annual dinner? What do you talk about?
Often, in these and similar circumstances, people speak without any clear idea of their purpose and have no message they want to communicate. Then somehow, it stretches to six minutes. A complete waste of time.
Every time you to speak to a group of people – five hundred, fifty or even five – it’s an opportunity to tell them something important. In fact, if you want to ask for people’s undivided attention, then you’d better have something important to tell them. If you don’t, why bother speaking?
Before you start writing a speech, work out why you are giving it. What is the purpose of your speech? What do you want it to achieve? What do you want people to be thinking about when you finish?
Sometimes, the answers are obvious, but sometimes you will need to think hard about them. Having the opportunity to speak to people is a privilege, so make the most of it.
will be. If it’s in the evening, try not to go on after 9.30 p.m. The later it gets, the shorter the attention span of the audience.
Where Do I Start?
Should you write a speech, or just get up and wing it? Almost invariably, the best thing is to write something down.
The act of sitting down and writing concentrates your mind and helps you to generate ideas. It gets you thinking about what you want to say and the best way of saying it.
Before you start working out what you want to say in your speech, understand this: audiences need to be entertained. That doesn’t mean that you have to tell jokes or tap dance. It just means that you have to keep giving them a reason to listen to you, and not allow them to get bored.
When writing your speech, you need to constantly think about what it is going to be like for those listening to it, and about how you can make it easy for people to listen to you. If you don’t keep giving them reasons to listen to you, they won’t.
When writing your speech, the first step is to collect information about the area you are speaking on. Read up on it, talk to people and, most importantly, think.
Thinking is one of the most frequently overlooked parts of speech-making. Every speech you make should contain your own original thoughts. Merely collating, reorganising and regurgitating information does not make for a riveting speech.
If you are speaking about the bride at her wedding, don’t just give a chronology of her life. Think about what sort of a person she is, and how you can illustrate her character strengths and foibles in an entertaining way.
Think hard. Brainstorm with yourself. Keep looking at the information you have, think about your subject, free associate, go off on tangents, and write it all down without worrying if it’s clever or insightful. You can do that later. First, just get it all down.
Don’t try to structure your speech too early in the writing process. If the first thing you do is to map out a structure, then you may cut off interesting areas that don’t fit into it. Gather information and think first. If you do that, then eventually you’ll end up with a disorganised load of bits that don’t seem connected in any way.
Then it’s time to start looking for connections between the bits. Keep looking and looking and you might see various themes begin to emerge.
Some say that you should structure a speech like this: ‘Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them’. Please, please, please don’t do this. Hearing anything three times is boring. If you tell them at the start everything that is going to happen, why should they bother listening to you repeat it?
Try this structure instead:
- Ask questions.
- Answer the questions.
- Tell a story that illustrates the message of your speech.
- Issue a challenge.
People love stories. They always have; they always will. We read them, we listen to them, we watch them on TV and at the movies. If you want people to listen to you, tell them a story. In fact, tell them lots of stories.
There are two types of stories in a speech.
1. The Big Story
Try to craft what you are saying into a narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end. If the purpose of your speech is to explain why the company is going to change from making hammers to making wheelbarrows, find a beginning, a middle and an end. Your ‘big story’ might look something like this.
Define the problem. The reasons why continuing to make hammers is not going to work.
Solving the problem. There are four alternatives: we make nails; we make chairs; we make wheelbarrows; or we go out of business. The pros and cons of each. Why making wheelbarrows is the best alternative.
Issue a challenge. Changing from making hammers to making wheelbarrows won’t be easy, but it is the only way we can survive. If everyone commits to making the change, we can do it, and we can become the best damn wheelbarrow-maker in the greater Dubbo district.
Look for a narrative in whatever you are talking about and transform your speech from a list of facts into a story.
If you are speaking about the bride at her wedding, your ‘big story’ might take the following approach.
Ask questions. Who is Sharon? How was a lonely only child from Perth able to come east to where the action is, find career success and the love of Melbourne’s best plumber?
The Secrets of Sharon’s success. She is determined. Illustrate by example. She is fun. Illustrate by example. She is reckless. Illustrate by example. How she met the plumber.
Serious and sincere. Why Sharon is wonderful. Why she and the plumber are wonderful together. A story that shows us they are a wonderful couple. Express the hope that they will live happily ever after.
2. Little Stories
Try to include stories and anecdotes all the way through your speech. By doing so, you will engage people’s imagination and get them interested.
Saying that Sharon ‘has overcome many setbacks to forge a new and successful life in Melbourne’ may be true, but it’s boring. Instead, tell a story about one of the setbacks she had, and how she overcame it. For example: ‘Three months after she arrived in Melbourne, Sharon got retrenched from her job. A week later, she was coming out of the newsagent’s, got hit by an idiot on a bicycle and broke her wrist, and the next day her cat ran away. At that point, most people would have thought, “Bugger this, I’m off home!” But not Sharon. She stuck it out.’
Economy of Words
You should generally try to convey your information in the fewest number of words needed to say it properly. Keep things moving. Keep telling the story.
It is good to test your entire speech for economy of words. See if it is possible to reduce its length by twenty per cent without losing any content.
I have often written something I think is perfect and brilliant, and then, an hour before I have to deliver it, realised that I have been too verbose. The content is fine, but there are just too many words. If that happens to you, it’s never too late to edit. Start crossing bits out. Condense. Keep getting to the most important points.
Keep to Time
Just do. There’s no excuse for going over, especially now that watches have been invented. If the people who have organised the event have allocated you a certain amount of time, that is how long they want you to speak for.
The speeches you learn most from are those that go badly. When they go well, all you do afterwards is sit back and think about how clever you are. When they go badly, it makes you think about what you could have done differently to make it better. Everyone who has made a great speech has first made a bad speech – usually many. When it doesn’t go well, analyse what happened and learn from it. The easiest thing to do when a speech fails is to decide that making a great speech is just beyond you. It’s not. What differentiates great speech-makers from everyone else is not superior natural ability. It is having the toughness and resilience to keep coming back and doing it again, and the humility to learn from mistakes. The more speeches you give, the better you will get. Good luck.