Whether it’s wedding toasts or the too-early start of the 2016 election season, every time you turn around somebody is standing up to share a few remarks.
Some are brilliant and inspiring. Others, not so much.
I know a bit about how to give a great speech–and probably more importantly, how to avoid giving a really bad one. I’ve had a side business as a professional ghostwriter for years, and I also run a network that connects other freelance ghostwriters with paying clients. While I’ve written more articles and books than I could possibly count, it’s the speeches–everything from eulogies and father-of-the-bride speeches to professional presentations–that can be most daunting.
I think this is because speeches are a multifaceted form of communication, most often given in real time, and that means there are simply more ways to screw thing up. So, in the interest of improving your next audience’s experience, here are 10 key steps that you absolutely must take to avoid a crowd full of groaners and yawners–or worse.
1. Understand the occasion.
Too basic? Please. We all have a story about the wedding toast that was completely inappropriate, or the professional address that got way too personal, or the supposedly friendly speech that turned into a complete bummer. Understanding the occasion and getting the tone right are crucial. People mess this up all the time, and yet it’s so easy. Think about your audience. What are they expecting to hear?
2. Take the time to prepare.
Whether you have a month’s notice or just a minute, it is your responsibility to prepare. It can be simply three main points you’ve jotted on a napkin, but remember that there are only a very few, rare people who can give an off-the-cuff speech with no preparation. (I saw Bill Clinton do it once. It was impressive, but he’s the exception. It’s also a big part of why he was president.)
3. Structure is your friend.
Make me listen to a horrible speech, and I bet I’ll tell you afterward that it lacked structure. Think of it this way–if the audience doesn’t know where the speaker is going and how long he or she is going to take to get there, they’re less likely to be on the his or her side.. We’ve all sat through these kind of long, boring diatribes. At the very least, even if you get everything else on this list wrong, at least respect your audience enough to let them know how long the torture is going to last.
4. Sing, don’t just speak.
You don’t have to rhyme your words or look up what iambic pentameter means, but remember to write prose with a dash of poetry. Here are two simple tips to make it easy. First, boil the theme of your speech down to a simple phrase, and repeat it at well-spaced intervals (classic example: “I have a dream…“). Second, remember that the human brain is hardwired to respond better to three-item lists. I don’t know for sure, but I’d bet that’s why in his classic 2005 speech at Stanford University, Steve Jobs mapped out his speech and told his audience he planned to share three stories.
5. Get the logistics right.
Basic stuff: Don’t read your speech verbatim, but have your notes with you. Project your voice–and if that isn’t going to work, make sure you’ve got a working microphone or plan to speak from the center of the crowd. If you’re physically short, stand on top of something. And at the risk of being crass, look in the mirror. Make sure your hair isn’t standing on end and you don’t have any boogers hanging out of your nose. Don’t let practical things that have nothing to do with your speech ruin everything.
6. Make it shorter.
Fewer words, fewer minutes, fewer points. If you were to read this column as a speech, it would probably take you about six minutes. Any longer, and your audience would probably revolt. (I can count on my fingers how many times I’ve worked on speeches and thought, “You know, this really needs to be longer.”)
7. Use props, literally.
Don’t over-rely on them, but use them as tools to “prop” up your speech (hence, “literally”). Also, if you absolutely have to use PowerPoint–you probably don’t, but if you really do have to–the fewer words on each slide, the better. Oh, and plan for the worst. Assume the projector will break, or your computer will freak out. What’s your backup plan?
8. Strive for connections.
Even though you’re doing most of the talking, a good speech is ideally a multi-way communication between you and multiple audience members. That’s actually a pretty high standard, but aim for it, and when things are going wrong, fall back on it. Focus at least on finding one or two friendly faces in the crowd, and engage them–whether it’s through simple nonverbal communication, questions, or something else.
9. Own your emotions.
I can’t tell you whether you should start with a joke, mainly because I have no idea whether you’re funny. However, I can tell you that in almost every speech, you’re better off sharing some kind of human emotion. Even just briefly (but authentically!) sharing how proud or sad or flat-out nervous you are to be making the speech can help you connect. (When in doubt here however, the key word is “briefly.”)
10. Pretend you’re on an airplane. Know where the exits are.
Even when you’ve prepared perfectly, sometimes a speech just doesn’t go well. Sometimes you run out of time (maybe it’s not even your fault), and sometimes you just plain lose the audience. So, prepare for it, by building escape hatches into your remarks. Know how you can cut them on the fly without seeming like you just quit in the middle. I guarantee you that at least once in your speaking career, both you and your audience will be glad you did.