Recently author and writer M.M. Justine spoke with me about her fear of having to give a speech and I shared with her some tips about speech writing and public speaking. I actually teach this in my Conversational English classes in China.
I recently re-presented on this new site one of my teaching articles specifically about writing speeches. Today I am going to talk about the physical act of giving a speech – the public speaking part.
Preparing to Speak Publicly
With sufficient writing ability (backed up by research of course), anyone can write a good speech, but there is a world of difference between writing and speaking.
The first thing to understand is that a public presentation generally falls into two categories. The first is the rather formal speech done from a podium at the front of a room where the speaker is physically separated from the listeners. The second type of presentation takes place ‘in the midst’ of the audience, and it is much harder to do. Both require the same skills though. Let’s start with the basics.
1) The Final Draft
A written speech requires lots of preparation time to ensure that it is organized/structured correctly, and that there are appropriate transitions between paragraphs and topics. For this reason a good speech will have several drafts, and in the process of writing out those drafts, the speaker has begun the process of ‘KNOWING’ the content of the speech.
This is an important step because speeches that are merely memorized are at the mercy of events that may cause a person to forget their memorized words.
2) The Practice
I was taught and so I myself teach that a speech should be practiced at least eight (8) times, and there are various reasons for this. Briefly stated, they are:
Firstly, with each practice the content of the speech is reinforced in the speaker’s memory.
Secondly, your speech should not be too much in excess of or fall too short of the planned time duration of the speech. Therefore each practice should be timed.
Thirdly, your body language and voice modulation are extremely important if you want your speech to make an impact, and as you practice your speech, you need to be practicing your body language and voice modulation so that they compliment or at least do not detract from the message contained in your speech.
Fourthly, having spent so much time on your speech you should know it so well that all you need with you when you speak it publicly is a list of keywords in the order in which they appear in your speech. This is otherwise known as using ‘Cue Cards.’ By the time you reach your final practice you should be able to do the speech using only your cue cards.
Memorization versus Intimate Knowledge
When you stand to speak you are doing more than reciting words. You are in fact engaged in communicating with an audience your opinions, ideas, feelings, passions and/or knowledge on a subject. They expect you to express yourself with feeling and passion and to actually know what you are talking about. Therefore it is essential that you KNOW what you are talking about – and – show the appropriate body language, gestures, actions and emotions associated with your topic.
If you don’t KNOW your topic, then as you speak you are focused mostly on remembering the words you wrote and as you do that, you essentially disconnect from your audience. Often when my students are giving speeches in class I will stand on a chair or a table and signal the student that their eyes and mine are meeting when their eyes ought to be meeting those who are sitting down.
Looking at the ceiling, the floor, the walls, out the window or down at your notes indicates a number of possible things. It may signify your absolute nervousness; you boredom; your fear; your lack of public speaking skill and most of all, the fact that you did not do enough preparation.
Once, after I had given a twenty minute speech, two audience members came to me gushing over my confidence and speaking skill, and expressing their wish that they could develop such skills. They then informed me however that they didn’t actually understand my speech. I burst out laughing. You see, two minutes into the speech I messed up my cue cards and was totally lost. I actually was just rambling on, but doing it so well that people liked my speech even though they had no idea what I was talking about.
It is imperative that you KNOW your speech, AND have brief notes / keywords / cue cards at hand should something happen and you go blank. Some people make a mess of things when they go blank or misspeak something. They immediately start apologizing. But you shouldn’t! No one knows what you planned to say. It is better to calmly pause and collect your thoughts while checking your notes, than let people think that you have stuffed it all up. If you smile while you do this, and look down at your notes, people will assume that you are waiting for a reaction to something you said, and they will start replaying your previous sentences in their minds. They will think that your behavior is planned.
So – write your speech many times, and practice it many times and have cue cards in case you screw up. The idea is that you don’t need to use the exact words that you wrote as long as you know your thoughts and feelings on the subject and the intent in your written version.
Timing your speech through practice.
How fast do you speak?
A professional speaker should not really speak faster than 160 words per minute. Timing your speech while practicing it will allow you to gauge how long the speech will take. If your speech is too short for the time given, you may have to add more to it. If it is too long, you may have to cut something out. The important thing is to know how fast you will speak because if you can speak at a measured rate and have been given a specific speaking time, then you know the maximum number of words to write, and if you are asked to write an amount of words for a speech, then you know how long the speech will take.
Improving Body Language through practice.
Everybody – simply everybody is nervous when they give a speech. I remember an important night when the speaker, intending to refer to Sir Christopher Wren, addressed him as Sir Christopher Robin. He brought the house down! And he recovered from the mistake really smoothly with a quip. On another occasion a speaker addressing 3,000 people, instead of saying that the bottom fell out of his world, said, ‘the world fell out of my bottom.’ These things happen and you have to learn by experience how to deal with them without losing your train of thought.
When you are speaking there are two physical things going on that can either improve or destroy your speech. These are repetitive actions or nervous gestures, and the speed and/or modulation of your voice.
I once got so caught up in what a student speaker was doing that I let her run well over time, and didn’t have a clue what she spoke about. I found myself counting. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven – bend down – look at your notes – stand up – brush the hair from your eyes – and one, two……
Some people constantly touch their glasses, brush their fringe out of the way, touch their ears, constantly pull their sleeves up, constantly put their hands in and then pull them out of their trousers, rub their butts, swing their legs and bend over to look at notes. Or else they are looking down, out the window, up at the ceiling – or worse – stare at the closest audience member.
For this reason I tell my students to video their practices. So many students have told me that until they saw themselves in a video, they did not even know that they were doing those things. The video will also highlight voice modulation or the lack thereof. Speaking too softly or too loudly will ruin your speech. And it only gets worse using a microphone.
Using Cue Cards
As a novice speaker, you ought to have researched your topic and then have prepared an outline for it followed by an organization of your points before actually writing the speech. Then if you have written a number of drafts (each time improving the language), and then practiced it numerous times, the speech should be well and truly fixed in your brain. You should KNOW IT thoroughly. But of course things do happen and you may need to refresh your memory.
If you are standing at the front of the hall at a podium, it is possible to have your full well spaced and highlighted speech in front of you (that no one can see) and you can just look down and see the next point highlighted.
Tip: As your head turns from the left side of the room to the right, your eyes have time to dart down and see the LARGE highlighted PRINT which is keeping you on track. No one will notice!
If you are in a more informal gathering and you are in the midst of the audience, then you can’t carry your full speech and MUST carry cue cards. They should be clearly (in large print) numbered with the keyword or topic listed. Even if you forget the exact words practiced from the written speech, you still know what you want to say. List only one or two topics on each card. Your last two rehearsals should only be done relying on cue cards.
Body language during the speech.
If you are at the front of the audience at a podium you do have an easier time. Unfortunately it can make you look a little stiff. It takes practice (and the microphone situation) to be able to release your death grip on the podium and move a little. But whether you move away from the podium or not, it is extremely important that you SMILE, AND move your HEAD so that it at least appears that you are looking around at the WHOLE AUDIENCE. Look to the left and the right and from the front to the back of the audience. Just look! Don’t try and focus on anyone at all. They will all feel that you are speaking ‘just to them.’
If you are giving the speech in the midst of the audience, then you ARE going to have to move somewhat. How much you move depends on the set-up of the space in which you are speaking. But for god’s sake MOVE. Look at EVERYONE! (You may have to turn around to do this.) Look into the eyes of every individual and smile (or whatever is appropriate depending on your topic). You don’t need to keep looking for a minute or 30 seconds or even ten seconds. Just make eye contact.
I can’t stress enough that the most important thing is that you KNOW your topic, in the order in which you practiced it.
It also cannot be stressed enough, that your KNOWING your topic will come to nothing if your voice and body language betray you. This does take practice and videoing yourself numerous times will help you.
Finally, make sure that you not only keep the people interested, but that you do not keep them longer than they expected. Get your timing down pat.
I’m now going to leave you with some other Important Notes:
If you are going to be using a microphone, make sure you are familiar with its use. Where is the on/off button? Did you check the volume? Is it at the right height? Adjust it before you speak. If you are using it in the midst of the audience, check to see that the cord is long enough (should it have one) and where are the dead spots (if any) in the room? Are you going to be using a chalk/white board? Is there chalk/pen at hand? Is there an eraser at hand? Are you going to be using an overhead projector? Have you practiced with it? Did you in fact account for that when you were practicing your speech? Are your slides/photographs/diagrams in order? Are they numbered clearly so that you will immediately know if one is out of order?
If you are going to quote someone or something, do you have the reference at hand should someone ask you for it, either during your presentation or afterward?
Be precise with your language. Do you think something or do you feel something? Is your statement an opinion or a fact?
Do not under any circumstance ADD anything that you may just have thought of while speaking. If you do, you run the risk of not finding your way back to your topic. Remember that your speech was full of transitions that kept your thoughts on track. Go off track and you may not be able to find the right transition to get back on track.
Make sure your dress style does not detract from your speaking. There is nothing worse than finding your eyes being drawn to a lady’s cleavage while she is speaking, particularly if she is in front of you. Men should be aware of the physical outline of their trousers. Is there a bulge? If so, wear clothes that are more loose. Women should also be aware of the contour of their breasts. Perhaps a coat over your blouse would be better. This has nothing to do with sexism, but with maximizing the attention of your audience.
I do hope that what you have read here today has been of assistance to you. Just remember that old saying which goes ‘practice makes perfect.’
Previous Articles on Speech Writing
- Part 1. Planning a Presentation or a Speech in English as a Second Language
- Part 2. Organizing the Points of your Speech or Presentation
- Part 3. The Outline or Bones of a Speech or Presentation
- Part 4. Topic Sentences and Transitions in Speech or Presentation Writing
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