Great speeches inspire people to act. Dr. King’s “I have a dream”, President Kennedy’s “Mission to the Moon” or President Reagan’s “Tear down this wall.” All of these speeches inspired people to act. Now, you may not have the worlds stage but when you standup and give a speech, that speech represents you and the group you are with.
Writing an effective speech requires that you prepare. I am sure some of you are probably saying, “hey, I just shoot from the hip and don’t prepare.” Well, some of you may be able to get away with that but most great speakers prepare like crazy so it looks like they are shooting from the hip. Passion is great and should show through in your speech. The thing that passion does not give you is structure, focus and the message that you want to leave people with. That message or take away needs to be crafting and honed so that your speech does not repeat itself or bore people to death. The whole point of a great speech is to capture the essence of your idea or movement and prompt people to act.
Speech writing and delivery is the single most important skill a leader needs in their arsenal because the sole job of a leader is to inspire people to act. Most of the techniques I am going to explain in this post are derived from both my experiences in giving talks and speeches. The structure comes, in large part, from a wonderful book that every aspiring speech writer should read called “Speak Up with Confidence: How to Prepare, Learn, and Deliver Effective Speeches” by Jack Valenti.
A Speech Title Should be Clear, Concise, and Compelling
Before you prepare your speech, it’s important to come up with a speech title that is clear and compelling. It should also be concise so that at a glance, people can tell if they want to attend. It’s also a great practice to come up with multiple speech titles and then say them out loud. That way, you can get a sense of how other will hear the title.
Preparing the Speech
Like anything, preparation is essential for an effective speech. The more preparation you do, the better the end product will be. Preparation starts with the following check list:
- Topic or title: Clearly and distinctly define your topic. This is the first step in crafting a great speech.
- Amount of Time: Time is always a premium and needs to be respected. Understand the time constraints you are under. Is this a 1.5 minute toast or a 30 minute lecture. Knowing this will allow you to edit your talk for the time allowed.
- Talking Position: If you are on a panel or talking with a group, the position you talk in matters for the flow and consistency of the overall event. Strive to figure out what others will talk about and try not to repeat what they have already said.
- Audience: Your audience will play a huge role in your speech preparation and delivery. Is it a city counsel meeting or an informal dinner party? Are the people bankers, software engineers or a mix? The audience should always been first and foremost in your mind and you should cater your words and delivery to them.
- Other Speakers: Sharing the stage with a great speaker can be a thrill but it can also be nerve racking. Knowing your fellow speakers style and delivery will also make you able to adjust your approach so you shine above even the most gifted orator.
- Get Some Help: If you’re really stuck or need to kick start your speech, you can hire a professional speech writer to help write it for you.
These six items will allow you to craft a good outline of what your talk or speech with be about. All speeches or talks have constraints and it’s vital that you, as the speaker, respect and understand that. Without this understanding, your speech will fall flat and not convey what you want.
How to Write a Great Speech
Yes, you need to write you speech down if you want it to be great. I know some of you may find that annoying or “unnecessary” but the discipline of writing your speech or talk down will allow you to craft a much better end product. With practice, this method makes you a better speaker. Listed below are the essential parts of your written speech and how to annotate it for better delivery and readability.
- Write the title at the top: Preferably centered and in a big font.
- Put the amount of time under the title: Hitting your time limit is an important part of a great speech. By putting the time front and center, you always remember that.
- Write the theme under the title: The theme is just one to two sentences on what your speech is all about. It will guild your writing and practice.
- Double space the lines: Double spacing allows for notes and makes the text easier to read.
- Underline or bold words to emphasize: When you want to emphasize a word, underline it or make it bold. That way, it sticks out in your mind. You will understand the power of this during your practice runs.
- All caps to really emphasize: All caps should be used to really drive home a single word or short phrase.
- Increase the font on strong points: Strong phrases or sentences should be a bigger font. That way, you know to spend a little extra time on them.
- Put short sentences or phrases of emphasize on separate lines: Make sure to put your central theme or themes separate from the rest of your speech so that you can emphasize them more and see how they flow from section to section.
- Number your pages: I know, sounds like a no brainer but people do forget this. Image this. You get nervous and drop your speech (which I have done). How do you get it back in the right order without freaking out? Page numbers!
Now the fun part — writing the content. There are several ways to go about doing this and all are good. What’s important is that you write down what comes to mind in a fluid fashion. Don’t edit yourself — you will have plenty of time for that later. What I tend to do is write bullet points of what the main themes need to be. For example, if I were to give a speech on this article, the outline would look something like this:
Title: How to Write and Deliver a Great Speech
Time: 10 Minutes
Theme: Describe how to write and deliver a great speech by preparing ahead of time and practicing
- Talk about memorable speeches
- Comment on how leaders use speeches to prompt people to act.
- Outline how to prepare: Topic, time, talking position, audience, etc.
- Describe how to write one: title, theme, double spaced lines, bold and caps for emphases
- How to practice: Say it out loud, edit, repeat. Even record if able.
- Delivery of the speech: Memorize if you can, always look around, pause when required, be witing if appropriate.
- Socializing after your speech will allow you to connect with even more people
See, that’s not so hard. It’s important to outline your speech or talk so that you can build from a framework. Without such a framework, your speech creation process will be unstructured, miserable and drudgery — kind of like the speech you will give without preparing.
Some speeches or talks allow for media or slides to be projected. We will not cover that here because the fine art of Power Point is a whole other topic. The only thing I will mention about props is that they should add value to the pitch and not be redundant. Translation, don’t read directly from the slides. Most people can read and you will lose your audience in a New York Minute!
Practicing Your Delivery
As the saying goes, in order to play at Carnegie Hall, you need to practice, practice and practice some more. Practicing your speech will allow you to hone the highs and sharpen the lows so that it flows. An effortless, engaging speech always starts with practice.
The single best method to practice is to read your speech out loud, to yourself. This method will uncover the awkward pauses, words or transitions that don’t show up on the page. As you read, it’s perfectly fine to stop, edit and continue on.
In addition to reading out loud, here are some other methods that will make your speech sing.
- Time yourself: You never know how long a speech will be until you time yourself. A general rule of thumb is that a single, double spaced page is about 1.5 minutes but that varies with delivery.
- Record it: Hearing your speech will reveal lots of places for improvement. I would recommend running through it a couple of times, out loud, and then record it to hear how it sounds.
- Print it out and mark it up: Sometimes it’s better to print out your speech to mark it up because you can lay out all the pages and look for overall flow issues. Once marked up, roll in your edits and re-record it.
- Practice with someone else: Another person will be able to pick up on points that might not be clear or give you advice on awkward moments. If you have the time, practicing with someone else will help out tremendously.
- Say it in front of a mirror: Mirror reading will allow you to see if you are looking down too much or your animations are too over the top. This does not replace practicing with someone else but can help you fine tune your delivery.
All of these methods are designed to focus your speech. The worst thing you can do is not practice and edit as you talk. That’s distracting and disrespectful to the audience.
The Moment of Truth
Okay. This is when all that writing and practice pays off. The big day or night when you have to stand up and give your speech or talk. If you are like most human’s, you will be nervous — perfectly acceptable and even desirable. Being nervous shows you care about what you are about to deliver. The trick is to channel those nerves and control them. Here are some techniques that work for me:
- Make the butterflies fly in formation: Everyone gets nervous, even seasoned veterans. So, don’t beat yourself up for being nervous. Rather, use that energy to practice more.
- Find a quiet place to mediate: Sometimes a quick 1-3 minute reflection will do wonders to calm you down.
- Admit your nervous: Tell someone back stage that you are nervous. Most likely, they will put you at ease and that will make you feel a little better.
- Talk with other speakers: If you will be sharing the stage with other speakers, go chat with them. Ask how they deal with the pre-speech jitters. It’s also a great way to meet someone you may have always wanted to meet.
The best way to give a speech is to memorize it. If that’s not possible, then you need to lay out your printed speech in a way that’s easy to read. The method I have found that works the best is to make sure the print outs are loose and that you can easily read them. Once you start, consider some of these methods to make your speech more effective, engaging, and interesting.
Effective Speech Delivery Should be all of the Following
- Start with a joke: Jokes always work to get the crowd on your side. It’s obvious, but don’t do anything racy. Funny stories also work, preferably ones that take you down a notch. Another option is to use your starting story as a call back when you finish your speech.
- Ask the crowd a question or show of hands: Speeches are about crowd engagement so start off by asking the crowd a simple question that they can raise their hand to. That way, you are getting them involved early.
- Divide the room into thirds: One aspect of crowd engagement is looking into the crowd. A good trick to seeing the whole crowd is to divide the room in thirds and scan each third regularity.
- Speak to one person: Once you have the room divided into thirds, then try and speak directly to one person in each third. This will reduce some of the jitters you might have by making the room appear smaller. Don’t fixate too long on one person but rather cycle through each third, picking a new person each time.
- Pause for effect: Nerves sometimes make people talk fast. If you talk too fast, then your points will get lost. When an important point comes up, pause before moving on. That way, it will settle in with the audience.
- Repeat important points: Repetition is also a good way to drive home important points. Don’t repeat things too much because that’s boring. One tip is to repeat the same important point a different way.
- Look up often: The worst thing you can do is just stare down at your notes and not look up. The audience wants to see you and they will be more engaged if you look up, scan the room in thirds and talk to a single person.
- Walk around and show your passion: Movement on stage will grab the audience. If you are able, walk around a bit. Use your hands to make important points. You body language and mannerisms account of a significant amount of the audience experience.
If you take away one thing from the list above, it should be that crowd engagement will make a weak speech seem great. If the crowd is into you and engaged, then the content can be a little less stellar and you can still be a big hit.
After the Speech
Many times, there will either be a reception or question and answer session related to your speech or talk. These are ideal times to get feedback on what worked and what didn’t. Make sure to seek out people who you feel enjoyed your speech or hated it. Ask them why they liked it or disliked it. Be bold and ask for advice on how your talk would engage them more. It’s also important to thank them for coming.
Go Forth and Be Great
See. That was not so hard. Anyone can write and deliver a great speech that engages the audience and inspires them to act. Just remember to be yourself, write it down and practice, practice and practice some more.