“According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” — Jerry Seinfield
So I’m no Toby Ziegler from The West Wing, but I do love to write a speech. I love gathering inspiration, anecdotes and interesting data and weaving it into a format that flows. I love finding the speaker’s “voice” and injecting their personality into their words. And I love doing this seated at my keyboard.
But for the person tasked with delivering the speech, it can be an entirely different experience. I know that just the thought of having to get up in a public forum to speak can send a person into a spiral of anxiety and cold sweats. I also know that many people would rather not win an award for fear of having to deliver an acceptance speech. But sometimes, it’s just unavoidable.
So what do you do when you’d rather not, but you have to deliver a speech?
Well, I’m inclined to defer to the wise men and women of yesteryear to give a little something extra to my thoughts…
Preparation is the key
“It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” — Mark Twain
Whether you work with a speechwriter or you do the groundwork yourself, the key to sounding natural and feeling in control, is to prepare well in advance. You don’t necessarily have to read from a prepared speech if that’s not your style, but if you’ve thought through what you want to say, you’ve spent some time developing the language and you’ve rehearsed, it will come more naturally when it’s time to stand and deliver.
"Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind.” — Dr. Seuss
If you just try to be yourself, you’ll be credible and genuine…and hopefully likeable! And when you’re trying to connect with, persuade or motivate an audience, that is critical.
Stick to the time limit
"Make sure you have finished speaking before your audience has finished listening." — Dorothy Sarnoff
- If your audience is standing, stick to the time limit.
- If they’re waiting for you to finish before they can have a drink or start the food service, stick to the time limit.
- If you are one of many speakers and the timetabling is critical, stick to the time limit.
- If your audience is outdoors in the elements, stick to the time limit.
- If the audience begins to fidget, wrap it up because you may have already lost them.
Get a sense for how many words per minute you deliver and then prepare the required number of words. Stick to the time limit and the audience and organisers will appreciate it. Or in the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Be sincere; be brief; be seated.”
Use language that suits your audience
“Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people.” — William Butler Yeats
The written and spoken word is so very different. For speeches, choose language that’s lively and engaging. A speech should sound natural and accessible—you can still communicate intelligent ideas, without using staid academic language. Create an interesting rhythm throughout the speech by varying sentence length, building the story, and using pauses to create tension and anticipation.
And just remember…
“There are only two types of speakers in the world. 1. The nervous and 2. Liars” — Mark Twain
Prepare your thoughts, write your speech out in full, and rehearse, rehearse and rehearse—the more you can look up and out and engage with your audience, the more fun everyone will have. It’s okay to feel nervous, but just take a deep breath and try to relax because the audience wants you to do well. Just don’t go imagining them in their underwear…it’s weird and will totally distract you!
And as they say in Show Biz...Chookas!