As American actress and performer Dorothy Sarnoff once declared, ‘make sure you have finished speaking before your audience has finished listening.’ This quote perfectly encapsulates the power of a great speech – one that has a profound impact on the audience and leaves them thinking. As anyone who has had to write and deliver a speech before knows, this is no easy feat.
Public speaking is an inevitable part of schooling and one that often brings great angst. It’s a daunting task to speak in front of your peers, but it’s just like anything that requires practice. The more you do it, the more confident you become. Who knows, you may actually learn to enjoy it. Try to think of public speaking less in terms of what others may think of you (because let’s face it, they’ll be more concerned with their own speech), and more as an opportunity to step outside your comfort zone, build confidence speaking in front of others and develop your own voice.
Here are seven easy steps to help you prepare and deliver a memorable speech.
1. Draw inspiration
Listen to, watch and read a variety of speeches. Start with some famous examples – Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I have a dream,’ Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2016 Democratic Convention, Emma Watson’s ‘HeForShe Campaign.’ Consider what makes each an effective speech. Is it the engaging or relatable subject matter? The powerful tone of voice or use of hand gestures? How the speaker uses humour coupled with moments of more serious contemplation? Note the topic, the purpose and how the audience is made to feel. This background work should invigorate you to write your own great speech and give you some concrete tips for your delivery.
2. Consider your subject matter
Ideally you will have some choice in the topic of your speech and hopefully it will be of interest. If this is not the case (such as an assigned topic or a debate), try and find an element that does interest you and think of it as a learning opportunity. If you’re speaking about a topic that has been widely spoken about before, try and find a fresh angle or take on the topic. Think about how it will benefit you and your listeners – you’ll enjoy the process more.
3. Have a clear purpose
So, you’ve got your topic. Now it’s time to consider your purpose. Are you trying to convince your audience of your point of view or are you educating your listeners on a particular topic? Regardless of the style of your speech, consider what you want your audience to think about, learn, believe and FEEL. This is your chance – whether it’s ten minutes, five or two – to share your voice and move your audience into doing, thinking or believing something that is important to you. As you write your speech, keep returning to your overall purpose. Ask yourself, am I achieving this goal?
4. Consider your audience
As well as thinking about what you want to say, it’s important to think about what matters to your audience. How will you make the content engaging and relatable to your listeners? Why should they care about this particular topic? How might it affect their lives? If you want to grab and sustain audience attention, their interests and priorities should be at the forefront of your mind. Also consider how your language might change depending on your audience. The register and tone of your speech will differ for a room full of primary school students compared with adults.
5. Do your research
The amount of evidence your speech requires will largely depend upon the purpose and style of your speech. For example, if you are preparing a speech on climate change, you will want to include extensive data that demonstrates the impact on the environment. However, don’t limit yourself to facts and figures. Statistics are helpful and certainly show that you’ve done your research. But remember your audience. Will listing off numbers and percentages sustain their interest? Include some expert opinions, quotations, contrasting points of view or historical references to add weight to your arguments and affect your listeners on an emotive level.
6. Plan your structure
The structure of a speech is very similar to the structure of an essay, and just as important. Your audience is relying on you and your voice to clearly guide them through your main ideas or arguments.
- Opening: Start strongwith a powerful opening to hook your audience (such as a famous quote, a rhetorical question, a funny anecdote or a short, sharp sentence to make your audience think). Avoid predictable openings such as ‘Hello, my name is…’ (your classmates should know who you are!) Then, clearly identify your topic and include some context. Acknowledge your audience and relate the subject matter to them.
- Body: Just like essay paragraphs, the body of your speech should contain your main points. Use topic sentences to signpost when you are beginning a new idea. Linking words such as ‘firstly, secondly, finally,’ canhelp your listeners to follow along. The body of your speech is where you might include some language devices (such as persuasive techniques) to convince your audience of your point of view.
- Closing: The conclusion of a speech is so much more than a summary. These are your final moments to impart your words of wisdom or mobilise your audience into action. Consider a strong closing line and whether there is anything further you want your audience to do or think about. You want them to continue reflecting after you have finished your speech.
7. Practise, practise, practise!
Depending upon the length of your speech and your experience, you may choose to write out your speech in full or simply use dot-points to guide your delivery. Personally, I prefer to write out my speeches in full and then condense them down to key ideas on cue cards as prompts. Regardless of your preference, until you’re a seasoned speaker, cue cards are a really helpful aid. Even just the process of writing cue cards will help you familiarise yourself with your material and clarify your main ideas.
Remember the task is to give a speech, not to read aloud an essay. You want to connect with your audience – using eye contact, body language, gestures and the tone and volume of your voice. It’s very hard to do this if you’re reading off an A4 piece of paper. If you’re feeling particularly nervous about speaking, you could even jot down on cue cards places in your speech to make eye contact, increase your volume or take a pause for emphasis.
Everyone knows the old adage ‘practice makes perfect.’ Rather than striving for perfection, however, focus on progress. Think of practice as the key to building confidence and giving yourself the best chance to feel happy with your speech. It doesn’t matter where or with whom you practise – in the mirror, to your friends, family or pet – the more you rehearse, the more familiar you will be with the content, and the more confident and natural your delivery will be.
Lastly, remember that the speech you have written is a gift to your audience – of your time, energy and thoughtfulness. Be proud of what you have put together. Step forward in the knowledge that you and your voice matter and have the power to effect change.