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15 Tips for giving a speech (and getting asked back)

Four years ago around this time, I gave my first public speech. It wasn’t very good, because it was my first public speech. Since then, I’ve learned a few things about how to catch and keep the audience’s attention. I’m still relatively new at this game, but I keep on getting speaking gigs, so I must be doing something right.

These tips aren’t mainly about the content of your speech, but about how to convey your ideas effectively and memorably.

BUT A FEW THINGS ABOUT CONTENT:

1. People generally remember one or two phrases or ideas out of a 40-minute speech, so choose wisely and be in charge of what stands out. It’s okay to tell a gripping story or a funny joke, but understand it will probably be the audience’s take-home, so make it relevant, not just memorable. If there’s something you really want your audience to remember, turn it into a refrain and go back to it five or six times.

2. Tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell it to them, then tell them what you just told them. This is not because your audience is stupid or dense; it’s because it’s new to them. Go with simple, memorable, and meaningful over subtle, dazzling, or intricate.

3. Skip the visuals unless they truly add something to your speech. Always skip the cheesy animated Powerpoint effects. The word “hope” truly isn’t more meaningful when it goes zooming around the screen like a crazed housefly. Ideally, your words themselves should create visual imagery in the audience’s head.

PREPARATION LONG BEFORE THE TALK:

4. Practice your speech out loud many times, of course, but also practice it out loud to someone else in the same room. There’s no substitute for a fresh set of ears to catch unclear sentences, the inevitable repetitive passages or words, and any weirdness or unfortunate connotations you missed.

5. Work hard at shedding irritating vocal habits. If you keep saying something meaningless (“like” or “um” or “so”), then ten minutes in, it will be all the audience hears. The only way to break the habit is to practice your speech until it makes you want to throw up.

6. Find out as much as you can about your audience before hand — while you’re writing the piece, and even right before you deliver it. The greatest talk in the world is worth zilch if it’s not a good match for that particular audience. Find out the age range, typical marital status, how conservative or liberal they are, income level, what kind of speeches went over well with this crowd in the past, and anything else you can think of, and then make adjustments accordingly, so they know you’re speaking to them.

PREPARATION JUST BEFORE THE TALK:

7. Dress unobtrusively. You shouldn’t be adjusting your neckline, brushing your hair out of your eyes, or smacking the podium with a swinging necklace or jangly bracelet. Wear something simple and professional, and wow everyone with your ideas.

8. Test the mic ahead of time. They vary so widely. Sometimes you have to actually brush it with your lips to be heard; sometimes you’ll get horrible feedback if you hold it too near your face. Sometimes the sound quality is affected by where your hands grip the handle. I prefer a lapel mic if I can possibly get one.

9. If you’re anything like me, you will feel like absolute garbage for 48 hours before the speech, because you suddenly see you are a complete fraud, everyone will hate you, and there is something drastically wrong with your nose and chin, and you’re boring anyway, and have nothing to say, and your voice is weird. Go ahead and cry, then wash your face and get out there. They hired you for a reason. They hired you for a reason! You! So go be Amazing You for 40 minutes, and then you can go back to your hotel and collapse like a bunch of broccoli.

10. Go with the delivery system that makes it easiest for you to give a good speech. Many speakers like to memorize their speeches entirely, or they only bring a few note cards up with them. I don’t trust myself to do this, even if I’ve given the same speech a million times. I bring the full version up with me and I try to memorize it. I always ad lib some portion, and I usually decide to skip at least a few paragraphs on the spot. It’s nice to be able to maintain eye contact with the audience the whole time, but not if you’re going to be stumbling and stuttering and saying “Y’know, y’know” the whole time (which is what I did last time I tried to go off script). It may not look fabulous to walk up with a sheaf of papers, but I’ve never had any complaints, so I’ve stopped feeling bad about it.

 

ACTUAL TALKING:

11. Speak much more slowly than you think you need to. You will tend to speed up if you’re nervous, so be prepared.

12. Don’t just think about the words themselves, but think about your tone, your volume, your timing. Speak much more expressively and dramatically than you would when you’re talking to someone face to face. The audience paid for their ticket; now you have to take them on an entertaining ride. Silence can be even more effective than words, used judiciously. Take your time. If you get rattled, just pause, regroup, and start again. It’s your room. Fill it up with your performance.

13. It’s okay to look just over the heads of the audience, if their faces are distracting or unsettling. I try to make brief eye contact with people in each part of the room, without neglecting any corners; and I try not to linger on any one person for too long, so as not to freak them out.

14. Don’t take it personally if someone looks tired or bored or angry, or if they are watching you with a weird, fixed grin. People’s faces often do not show a true picture of how they’re receiving your words. And anyway, you can’t reach everyone. Be happy if your words meant a lot to one or two people (and you got paid!).

15. If there’s a question-and-answer session afterward, prepare something ahead of time in case there’s an awkward silence. (An awkward silence doesn’t necessarily mean you bombed or your audience is asleep or hates you. Sometimes they’re just thinking over what you just said.) If no one raises their hand, you can say, “All right, let me ask you something. Who did that amazing mural in the back of the hall?” — or whatever, anything, just to break the ice. One time I said, “Well, I wouldn’t know what to say, either,” and everyone laughed, and then a bunch of people raised their hands.

BONUS TIP:

Don’t leave the building without your check. Trust me on this. If you leave without your check, you will never get your check.

***

Are you a public speaker? Or have you sat through a lot of talks and wish the speaker would understand a thing or two? What would you add to this list?

 

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