You could be called on to deliver a speech for a number of reasons: a wedding, a work function, a pitch for your startup, but whatever the occasion, you want that speech to blow the audience away. Based on my experience teaching public speaking at Carnegie Mellon University, here are 12 things you can do to give an award-winning speech.
1. Tell a Story
Unless you’re getting a masters in statistics, you probably don’t get all hot and bothered when someone starts quoting numbers to you. When we’re putting speeches together, we naturally think to include as many facts and details as possible, but most of the time, the audience doesn’t care that much about the specifics.
If you want to be memorable and keep your audience’s attention, you need to tell a story. That means having a quick introduction, including some rising action and suspense to a climax, and diminishing action to a resolution. You want to take them on a journey with you as you’re speaking to be truly captivating.
2. Suit Up
Okay, it doesn’t have to be a suit. But you need to look good. People will naturally take you more seriously and believe you more if you’re well dress and present yourself as being very put together, so it’s important to consider how you appear to the audience. As much as 70% of communication is nonverbal, so as much as you want your words to be spot on, you need to look the part as well.
3. Know Your Audience
You wouldn’t say the same things to a group of entrepreneurial college students and to a group of 50–70 year old veteran lawyers. It’s necessary to know who you’ll be speaking to and what their interests are. You want your story to appeal to what they care about; don’t just assume they’ll just be interested and pay attention to you because you’re speaking. You have to empathize and connect with them.
4. Practice, Practice, Practice
Very few people can wing a speech and do it well. Just ask Michael Bay. If you want to really blow your audience away, you need to make sure you have your speech down cold. This means not only practicing it a few times, but practicing it in a few different locations as well (to decrease the influence of locational cues) and ideally having some distractions in the environment. Also, be sure you can get through it without slides (if you’re using any) just in case something goes terribly wrong.
5. Test Your Setup
Tech can, and will, fail on you. You never know when you’ll get to a presentation and the projector won’t work with your computer, or you’ll have sent the wrong format presentation, or any number of other errors. The only way to avoid this is to show up early and make sure that everything you’ll be depending on works.
That covers some of the main things you should think about before the speech; now here’s what to be sure of during it.
6. … Pause
Pausing does three things for your speech. First, it adds dramatic effect. A pause leaves people hanging as they wait for what you’re going to say next. Second, it makes you sound more intelligent and thoughtful. And third, it helps you avoid using filler words like “uh” and “um,” which we most frequently use while we think of what to say next. A pause fills the same function.
When we have day-to-day conversations, we generally speak in a faster more relaxed way. We slur some of our words, use shortcuts, and keep it casual. This doesn’t work in giving a speech though—if you want to be heard and understood, you need to speak clearly and articulate your words more than you would normally. This means speaking a bit slower, making sure you don’t trail off at the ends of sentences, and watching the audience to see if anyone looks like they can’t understand you.
8. Keep Eye Contact
This is the best way to connect with each individual person in the audience. It doesn’t have to be for longer than a couple seconds, but if you make an effort to make eye contact with as many people as possible, it will help them feel much more engaged with you as a speaker. If you never make eye contact with them, they’ll be much less involved in the speech, so definitely don’t look at the back wall or just look at their foreheads. It has to be real eye contact.
9. Stay Facing Forwards
Just because everyone else is looking at your PowerPoint doesn’t mean that you have to as well. The minute you turn around and start talking toward your slides, you tell the audience to stop looking at you and just read off of the screen for themselves. It also tells them you didn’t prepare for the speech, so avoid looking at your slides as much as possible.
10. Use Your Hands
Many people don’t know what to do with their hands while speaking, because we normally don’t need to think about it in day-to-day conversation. This results in ridiculous hand waving, wringing, hiding them in your pockets, and all sorts of other bad stuff. You never want to do anything unintentional with your hands—you want them to do intentional gestures that back up what you’re saying. Practice making effective gestures until you have a repertoire you can use to enhance your speech.
Obviously your speech won’t be memorable if no one can hear you. Getting projection right is largely a result of practice, but you can also gauge the audience to figure out how you’re doing. If the people in the back are leaning forward they are probably having a hard time hearing you, and if the people in the front look terrified you’re probably yelling at them. Adjust accordingly.
12. Show Confidence
Finally, your audience will base a lot of their beliefs about the strength of your speech on their impressions of your strength as a person. If you appear confident and sure of yourself, they’ll believe what you’re saying and believe it’s a good speech. If you’re slouched, covering your chest, shuffling back and forth, and not making eye contact, they will pick up on it and you’ll lose their interest. Be sure to project confidence in not only your speaking, but your body language.
If you can incorporate these 12 things into your preparation and speeches, I’m confident that you can reliably give an award-winning speech.
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