In the third part of our public speaking workshop (Part 1 was ‘Getting your mindset right‘ and Part 2 was Pro Tips for Knockout Speech) we’ve asked the experts for all of the tips, tricks and teachings you need for a writing a speech or presentation.
You’re due to give a speech, whether at a wedding, work meeting or Zoom conference, and as if your pre-public speaking nerves weren’t enough you’re sat in front of a blank doc with writer’s block. Sound familiar?
It may be reassuring to know that the world’s most articulate wordsmiths can struggle with this exact same keyboard paralysis when it comes to putting a speech down on paper. Speaking aloud has a different rhythm to reading words on a page and it can be all too easy to lose your audience by way of meandering anecdotes, knotty language or complicated graphs and tables that distract from the point that you’re trying to put across (making no mention of recent PowerPoint fails at UK government press briefings).
Delivering an Obama (or Kamala) level speech may indeed be an art and there’s a reason why public speakers often hire a crack team of speechwriters to spin their initial ideas and concepts into public speaking gold. Luckily you don’t need to enlist a scribe to craft a speech that’s memorable for all of the right reasons – learn the surprisingly simple speech writing secrets of those in the know and you’ll have your audience eating out of the palm of your hand. Or at the very least, listening, which really isn’t something to be taken for granted according to the experts.
Knowledge is power
Phil Waknell, co-founder of communication and presentation agency Ideas On Stage, suggests getting out of your own head as the starting point for writing a speech:
“Tailor your speech to your audience: it’s theirs, not yours. Speak to them specifically and personally, using relevant examples and stories where possible.
“If you make it clear that this isn’t the same speech you would give – or have given many times – to other audiences, they will listen more attentively and appreciate the effort that you’ve made to adapt to them.”
In essence, everyone likes to feel special, even in a virtual room of avatars. Understanding your audience, where they’re coming from and what makes them tick will play to your advantage before you’ve even begun typing.
What’s the story?
This may seem like an extremely basic starting point, but establishing the story that you’re trying to tell (or sell) from the outset is key to the eventual success of a speech. Phil explains why consistent, engaging narratives are so important:
“People forget facts and general statements, but our minds light up when we hear real, concrete stories, meaning that we listen intently and remember so much more of the detail in the stories, and therefore the speech.”
We’re not suggesting that you go in with a ‘book at bedtime’ approach, but painting a vivid picture to illustrate your point will capture your audience’s attention and imagination while improving their retention of your speech in the long term. Phil advises focusing on the “emotional journey” of a speech rather than reeling off information or stringing together logical arguments. While the latter approach works well for a written essay, even the most formal of speeches needs to centre on emotional and attention-grabbing ‘hooks. That said, ensure that your register is appropriate for the occasion…
Set the tone
Before you fall into TED Talk induced overwhelm, retired paediatrician, university lecturer and now wildlife photographer Dr Mark Hunter underlines that there are fewer ‘types’ of speech than you might imagine:
“There are three main goals when giving a speech – to entertain, to teach/inform or to persuade. There’s limited crossover between these types and even ceremonial speeches adhere to this categorisation, for example the aim of a wedding speech is to entertain while a eulogy is an education about the life of the deceased.”
With this in mind, Mark emphasises that it’s vital to establish why you’re making a speech and briefly explain your credentials for doing so to the audience too:
“Introduce yourself (it’s rude not to), explain where you’re taking the audience and justify your talk before delivering the main substance. Then end with a summary, conclusion or punchline that’ll resonate long after you’ve left the stage or pressed ‘Leave Meeting’.”
As for that punchline, Mark has a pointer on comedy:
“Tread carefully when it comes to humour. If you’re going there, make sure that any jokes are genuinely funny (road test them on a close, captive audience beforehand) and that you know your audience well. Don’t let humour distract from a serious talk.”
That’s not to say that a phenomenal finale is off the cards…
‘Sandwich’ your speech
Creating a striking entrance and exit is the distinguishing feature of a rousing speech. Just as an audience’s attention is held rapt by a suspenseful, intriguing or heartfelt story, so a powerful catchphrase or statement will live on in your audience’s memory. Malala Yousafzai’s 2013 address to the UN highlighting every child’s right to education is one such compelling close (“one child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world”) while Greta Thunberg’s searing opener at the 2019 UN Climate Change Summit (“this is all wrong; I shouldn’t be up here”) had the world and its leaders hanging onto her every word from the off.
Phil affirms that how you bookend your speech makes all the difference between an attentive audience and an AWOL one:
“Aim to provoke an emotional reaction within the first 30 seconds. Grab their attention and make the audience realise that they will actively enjoy your speech as well as gain or learn something from it. Make them smile, make them laugh (if that’s appropriate), make them raise their eyebrows – just don’t make them bored.”
From there, Phil advocates taking a step back from Microsoft Office:
“When you’re writing a speech, don’t just reel it off verbatim in Word or PowerPoint. Begin with sticky notes or notecards and write down one salient idea per card. Assemble your ideas into a storyline that will reset the audience’s attention every few minutes.”
Mark adds that the average audience’s attention span peaks at between 15-20 minutes, so don’t try to stuff in too much – stick to three main points, max. He advises keeping props minimal (if you’re using them) and if you’re presenting slides opt for clear fonts written large and in monochrome, ideally with headings that ‘fly’ in to prevent your audience from reading ahead. Mark also urges you to construct your speech in a way that will work if tech or add-ons fail you. You don’t want to be held hostage by dodgy wifi.
Finally, if you’re still up a speech-writing creek without a paddle, heed the ultimate public speaking wisdom of former US president Franklin D. Roosevelt:
“Be sincere; be brief; be seated.”
If you like this article then you will LOVE the rest of our Personal Growth section where you can find articles on everything from ‘How to Feng Shui your Office’ to ‘How to keep relationships in tact despite despite differing political views.’
We all know someone, whether real or famous, who can rise to any occasion, delivering killer quips and holding a rapt audience’s attention seemingly on a whim. Sensational speakers may appear to be imbued with some kind of magic magnetism or innate charisma, but there are no smoke and mirrors where public speaking is concerned; experts say that confident presenters are made, not born. We looked into the public speaking tips and tricks that can turn a reasonably good speech into a brilliant one.
It’s true that some of us are more prone to public speaking anxiety than others, but perfecting the art of public speaking is akin to flexing a muscle – the more practice, training and challenges you take on, the better you’ll become. Just bear in mind that you don’t need to deliver a ‘perfect’ performance. Public speaking PBs are achieved by putting in the hours offstage, just as medals are really won in the gym.
Ready to learn the secrets of Oprah et al? Here’s how to skill-up and step-up, one Zoom meeting at a time.
Eyes on the prize
Whether you’re aiming to inform, persuade or just generally charm your prospective audience, establishing a connection without eye contact is nigh-on impossible. Holding eye contact can, however, feel just as daunting as speaking itself, particularly if you’re on the shy side. Once you’ve gotten comfortable with being uncomfortable in the eye contact department, at least initially, you’ll soon reap the rewards in a public speaking setting.
Begin by rehearsing your talk in front of the mirror, holding eye contact with yourself and noticing your mannerisms and body language. It doesn’t matter if your speech isn’t complete – experts estimate that around 80% of our communication is non-verbal, and seeing as eyes are the windows to our soul, it makes sense to let our audience in. The sooner that you can get to work on the physicality of your public speaking, the better.
That said, a fleeting glance doesn’t cut it, as only briefly catching someone’s eye can make us appear more anxious and less sure of what we’re saying. Aim to hold eye contact for between 2-3 seconds, first practising in the mirror and then focusing on maintaining eye contact with family, friends and colleagues in less formal settings. Even holding eye contact with your laptop camera counts according to communication consultant and author of How to be a DIVA at Public Speaking Shola Kaye:
“We needn’t physically be in people’s company to establish engaging eye contact – having cameras turned on you can be an even more intense experience than maintaining dynamic eye contact in person. In this way I think that video can provide an excellent means by which to practice and develop your presentation skills, both verbally and otherwise.”
Alongside establishing a rapport with your audience with a well-timed ‘smies’ (smiling with eyes), practicing breathwork can help to both alleviate nerves and improve the rhythm, clarity and energy of your speeches.
Catch your breath
You’ve been inhaling/exhaling since day dot, but have you been harnessing the power of your breath to get your point across? It turns out that breathing is as much a skill as it is a vital life function.
Breathing deeply and fully into our belly (as you might during a yoga class) not only calms the ‘fight or flight’ response that so many of us feel when faced with a captive audience but it also lends power to our voice, as presenter, actor and author of Improvise!: Use the Secrets of Improv to Achieve Extraordinary Results at Work Max Dickens explains:
“To gain an audience’s trust, how we present our voice and body must match the message that we’re trying to get across. It’s pointless trying to deliver interesting content without expressive body language and vocal power.
“Breathwork plays a big part in this. Practice ‘punching’ out the first and last words of your sentences with muscularity. This will deliver an extra layer of impact and it’s a technique used by some of the world’s best speakers and performers (Youtube is your friend here).
“Secondly, use silences between breaths to your advantage. Pause where you want to add emphasis. Silences show huge confidence, as long as you own them.”
Letting silences linger can feel awkward at first so rehearse using emphatic silences conversationally, allowing communication to be ‘digested’ and resisting the urge to fill the void. As for practising breathwork, everything from yogic breathing classes, known as pranayama, to joining a choir can help you to master the kind of diaphragmatic breathing that improves both poise and delivery. Speaking of which…
Join the club
There’s likely only so much talking to yourself in the shower that you (and your family/ roommates) can bear – joining a public speaking network such as Toastmasters will take your skills to a whole new level. The global organisation of 16,200 public speaking clubs may primarily be operating online for now but the support, learning pathways and opportunities to exercise your public speaking muscles in a friendly and constructive environment are as valuable as ever. You needn’t dive in at the deep-end to chair a meeting or deliver a speech during your first session – projects and presentations can be completed at your own pace, all with personalised feedback to help you to gradually up your game.
If you’re feeling even more brave, Max recommends bringing a bit of drama into your weekly routine:
“Taking improv classes is a gamechanger – they’re not just for actors. Improv classes will help you to shed your fear of failure, give you lots of practice talking in front of others in a safe and encouraging environment, and you’ll learn not to be afraid of the unexpected.”
Londoners can join Max at a socially-distanced improv session at Hoopla, but if the likes of impromptu stand-up has you quaking in your boots, hosting a book club or even encouraging daily dinner table debates using tools such as Table Topics conversation starters are fun ways to polish up your public speaking act. Just make sure that you keep it regular – as with a workout routine, little and often trumps the occasional marathon.
Lastly, when both warming-up in front of friends and giving a speech itself, don’t forget to listen as well as talk. Asking questions, presenting a group with an activity or remembering audience members’ names (a classic magicians’ trick) will take engagement and energy levels to fresh heights. Max reveals that professional comedians listen more than they speak – it might seem counterintuitive but it prevents them from getting stuck in their own heads and improves both material and audience response. Go ahead and break a leg.
It’s important to get your mindset right before a speech. We asked the experts for their tips in Part 1 of our Public Speaking Workshop