How to Deliver Effective Speeches

The most common phobia that Americans have is glossophobia, the fear of public speaking. Seventy-five percent of all Americans report having a fear of public speaking, beating out fear of spiders, fear of the dark and even fear of death. What they need is advice for giving a good speech--advice that's more constructive than "picture the audience naked."

Know Your Audience

Never forget who you're talking to. You're speaking to a specific audience. And audiences, by definition, gather to watch something that's worth their being held hostage in a cramped room for an extensive amount of time. But don't worry: An audience is much easier to control than separate individuals. To woo audience members, you must do two things: find out what they want to hear, and figure out how to get that message across.

Know what the audience wants to hear. Each audience is different. Keeping that in mind, here's how to gear your speech towards a specific audience:

*Research your audience. Find out what the average audience member will be like. What will the average age be? What about their familiarity with the subject? Will they be fun-loving or stodgy? What are they expecting to learn from you? Thinking about these simple elements will set you on the right track.

*Use appropriate words and body language. A career-day speech in an elementary-school classroom is not the place to start pulling out terms like, "software development" when what you really want to say is "I do stuff with computers." But if you're giving a presentation to a group of programming colleagues, you should by all means refer to what you do as "software development." If the audience doesn't understand your words, your speech will completely fly over their heads. If the words you use are too simple, your speech will be drowned out by the snoring.

*Think about the image you want to convey. When you're speaking to children, smile a lot and look friendly and warm. When delivering a presentation to a group of distinguished colleagues, you still want to be accessible, but you must also maintain an authoritative air.

The whole point of giving a speech is not just to make it through all your index cards, but to also communicate something to your audience. Consider these suggestions to help you out:

*Treat the audience as a single entity. One trick of the trade is to pretend that the audience is just one person. When there's only one person you have to worry about, you feel more of a personal connection to him. Your speech will take back seat to the fact that you want the person who's listening to you to really understand what you're saying.

*Make eye contact. Nothing makes an audience more alert than a speaker who can stare down a crowd. Making eye contact means making a connection, and that is your number one goal. So let your eyes wander up from your notes as often and naturally as possible (this will get easier with practice).

*Consider letting the audience participate. It's not applicable to all speeches, but letting members of the audience participate during your presentation will warm up a crowd. It'll encourage them to pay attention, thus making you easier to understand. Participation can range anywhere from asking for a show of hands to dividing the group into little clusters and giving each cluster a task. However, you should never call on someone who is not prepared to answer, nor should you ever embarrass anybody.

Organize Your Speech

Most speeches have three main components: the introduction, the body and the closing.

The introduction is possibly the most important part of your speech, because you want to grab your audience's attention from the start. So come up with something clever, shocking or interesting right at the very beginning. Here are some possible techniques to use:

*Be dramatic. Say something like, "I'm about to reveal a plan that will drastically alter the face of humanity as we know it!" when your presentation is really about a new brand of facial soap.

*Tell a joke. Getting people to laugh will loosen them up and make them feel inclined to like you and hear what you have to say. Don't try this if your jokes are usually met by silence or groans. Test out your opening on your most brutally honest of friends.

*Tell a story. This will make the audience see you as a person instead of a boring public speaker, thus giving you an air of accessibility. just keep the story short (under one minute) and relevant to the rest of your presentation. The point of the story is to lead the audience into your speech, so if your anecdote ends with your dog saving the day, and your speech is about bank mergers, you might have a hard time segueing from your intro into the rest of the speech.

*Pose a question. Asking audience members for their input will make them feel involved, even if you're going to answer your own question.

The body is your speech. Everything you want to say should come out here, in an organized, non-trivialized fashion. Here are some possible techniques:

*Use a formal outline. You can prepare for writing the content of your speech by outlining your major points with Roman numerals. Most good speeches have two or three main points, each of which has a couple of sub-points or examples. Formally outlining your speech will ensure that your logical flow makes sense and that your audience doesn't get lost. It will also help you figure our where the holes in your speech are, in case you have to do some last-minute extra research.

*Mind-map. A technique developed by a British brain researcher in the 1970s, mind-mapping is a less stiff version of writing up an outline. Instead of making a list, you write the main topic of your speech in the center of a piece of paper, then draw branches extending from it that highlight your key points. Then draw more branches from the key points to elaborate on the sub-points. The good thing about mind maps is that they don't confine you to listing your ideas in any particular order; you can just use your creative juices and let the ideas flow. Then, once you've mind-mapped, you can create a more formal outline.

However you create your body, the key point is that you are organized. The audience must be able to follow your thoughts.

The closing--the way you end a speech--is almost as important as the way you begin it. The audience will be most restless at the end, and you have to find a way to tie everything together so they don't walk away remembering how badly they were fidgeting. So sum up everything for them in a few concise sentences and leave them with a witty line. If appropriate, also ask for questions. This doesn't mean saying, "Any- questions?-No?-I-didn't-think-so," then running away. Instead, after you ask for questions, give the audience at least 10 seconds to respond. If there are questions, keep each response short (under one minute), and never take a guess at an answer. If you don't know how to respond to something, take down the questioner's email or phone number and tell her you'll get back to her soon. Or you can just say, "Honestly, I don't know," and leave it at that.

Write Your Speech

Writing a good speech is something that people write entire books on. But here are some quick cheat-notes to consider:

Vary your word choice. Your speech will get very boring very quickly if you repeatedly use the same words. So use interesting and different words and phrases and keep things new.

Get a thesaurus. It's not cheating, it's expanding your vocabulary, and all great writers use one. A word of warning: Only use words that people know.

Keep the writing conversational, no matter how technical or unexciting the subject content might be. No one likes being lectured to, so there are a couple of tricks you can use to make it feel like a normal dinner-table conversation:

Whenever possible, describe a feeling or situation in detail. The audience will follow you with more facility if you paint a picture instead of continually throwing out dry, emotionless words. One way to do this is to use action verbs. Instead of saying "learn," try "elucidate." Also, imagery can be very effective. Instead of simply informing the audience that female praying mantises instinctively bite off the heads of males after they've finished mating, you could try a more graphic and dramatic approach:

Humor almost always helps. It's even appropriate at eulogies. The essence is in the timing, though. It's a good idea to test out humor on friends prior to the actual presentation. And leave out any humor that is even remotely offensive. Often, self-deprecating humor (that doesn't completely destroy your credibility as a speaker) works well.

Rewrite your speech--many, many times. Even the most brilliant writer never gets it perfect on the first try, so you have to continually rewrite and tighten your speech. Get rid of superfluous information (no matter how funny it is), and make sure each line has a point.

After you've written your speech, it can be helpful to put it on 3-by-5-inch index cards. They are easier to carry around and shuffle through, and because you don't want to spend your entire presentation reading (and not speaking), index cards will make you feel more inclined to glance up when you flip through them. Just be sure to put huge numbers on the front of each card, in case they accidentally get shuffled around. But don't use the index cards as a crutch. Then, people will think that you're talking to your hand.

Practice Correctly

Unless you're a descendant of the Lincoln or the Douglas family lines, you'll need to rehearse your speech several times before presenting it. The best speakers become effective speakers through constant practice.

Methods of practice:

*Stand in front of a full-length mirror and try to look like a public speaker. Keep your posture straight and your hands in sight, and look into your own eyes. Tell yourself, "Gosh darn it, people want to hear what I have to say!", then begin delivering your speech. Be conscious of the way you look in the mirror and adjust yourself accordingly as you're talking. Make sure you're not being stiff, but always maintain an alert posture, or the audience will end up imitating your slump. Look into your eyes whenever you look up from your notes, and look up from your notes often.

*Tape-record--or, even better, videotape--yourself delivering the presentation. When you replay the tape, listen to determine if everything sounds coherent and logical, and watch the way you look while speaking. Look for eye contact, gestures and weird facial tics.

*Gather some friends and family, sit them down and deliver your whole spiel to them. After it's over, ask them to give you some constructive feedback (the last thing you need to do is have your confidence shaken). Ask them to tell you about what you did well and what you need work on. Ask them to tell you what they didn't understand.

*Rehearse small sections of your speech throughout the day. If you have 5 or 10 minutes, go over parts of the speech in your mind. These mini-rehearsals are easier to fit into your schedule, and will give you a chance to practice parts of the speech that are giving you trouble.

As you improve, see if you can memorize sections without relying on the notes at all. These memorized sections will give you prolonged time to connect to the audience.

Once you feel very comfortable with the material, don't be afraid to ad-lib some parts when you feel like it. This is your speech and you can say whatever you want; as long as you're sure you can get back on track, try speaking off the cuff. It'll help you sound conversational instead of like a robot.

Incorporate gestures. It is not fun to watch a popsicle; it is imperative that you occasionally use a gesture or two during your speech. Here are some tips for effective gesturing:

*Less is more. The more gestures you make, the more it takes away from the power of each gesture. So use gestures to emphasize important points. If you use too many gestures, you'll look like a windmill, arms waving about.

*Use gestures when using active words. If you're talking about a split between two people (or organizations or concepts), use a gesture that emphasizes it. If you're talking about a synergy or meshing of people (or organizations or concepts), use a gesture that emphasizes it.

*Practice your gestures in front of the mirror as you rehearse. And don't forget the most important gesture: to smile. It makes you look more comfortable and less like a victim in front of a firing squad.

Project your voice. Contrary to popular belief, projecting your voice does not mean shouting. When you project, you simply raise the volume of your natural speaking voice without losing control of it (that's when it becomes "shouting"). Think of the difference between talking to someone in a noisy restaurant, and calling your dog in from the backyard.

You must always project while giving a speech, even if you are presenting in a small room. Find the object furthest away from you and deliver your speech to it. During the first minute of speaking, monitor your audience members' faces (especially the ones in the back row) to see if they look confused. If you notice that they are not paying attention from the very start, stop yourself and ask if everyone can hear you. If there's no reply, you just got your answer.

Visual aids are not always necessary, but they are good to include if they help you get your point across. The key is to make sure that they add to your speech. After all, it's just plain dumb if, during a speech about saving the trees, you whip out a picture of a tree. We all know what trees look like. It is equally useless to present a very complicated diagram that someone sitting in the tenth row can barely see, let alone decipher. So keep your visual aids very simple. Images and uncomplicated graphs are best, but if you want to make a list of points to go over, keep each line of the list brief, and the number of lines just as short. Try five words per line and five lines per visual aid.

Know How to Handle Nervousness

It's just a speech. Your life does not depend on it (at least, not in most cases). But if the thought of going out there and completely freezing up makes you freeze up just thinking about it, go through some of these relaxing exercises just prior to your performance.

Physical preparation:

*The night before, don't eat dairy or drink milk. They cause you to phlegm up. Also avoid soda, coffee, tea or other caffeinated drinks for at least 1 hour before the speech. They'll just make you even more antsy.

*The morning of your speech, brush your teeth and use mouthwash. A clean mouth is a happy mouth.

*Look presentable. Dress in nice clothes, comb your hair, do your nails and groom yourself so you look as nice as possible. As the saying goes, "Dress to impress." The nicer you look, the more credibility you'll have with the audience.

*Go to the bathroom about 30 minutes before the speech.

*Deep-breathing exercises may seem cheesy, but they really slow your heart rate, lower your blood pressure and reduce your adrenaline flow. So try breathing in through your nose, holding your breath for 5 seconds and breathing out through your mouth. Do this at least three times, but don't go over six, or you may either keel over or start to hyperventilate.

*If hand gestures are a part of your presentation, shake up your hands to get the blood going. This exercise will make it more natural for you to move them around during the performance.

*Vocal exercises can help. Prepare your mouth by running through your speech at full voice several times. If you screw up, just keep remembering that the audience won't have a text and see where you screwed up. Just move on as if nothing happened.

*Most importantly, be confident. Even if you're not, the better you fake it, the more comfortable the audience will be with you--and thus, the more positive vibes they'll throw your way.

Mental preparation:

Think these comforting thoughts (and true facts) before and during your presentation:

The average audience actually expects a speaker to be a complete snooze, and because you've made at least made an effort to do your presentation right, you are already going above and beyond the audience's expectations.

About the Author

Steve Schneider is an award-winning critic, columnist and humorist with two decades of experience in print and online journalism. He holds a Master's degree in media, culture and communication from New York University.

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