Speechmaking – Prepare to Take the Platform and Shine

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Speechmaking is an important part of business life. It’s an essential ability for leaders and managers, alongside communication skills and the other soft skills contributing to your success.

If you’re asked to give a speech or write one, you will find this article helpful. We look at what speeches are, factors that make a good speech, and staying focused on your purpose. Next, we explore different types of speech and approaches to effective speechmaking. From there we look at ways to make serious speeches interesting and memorable, in content and performance. And we end with some pitfalls to avoid, and a note about TED Talks. Good luck!

What is a Speech?

A speech is a formal address or discourse that you deliver to an audience. It’s more structured than a conversation but has the same elements of attention, content and purpose.

In larger SMEs and corporates, leaders and managers primarily communicate with teams through internal communications and increasingly, social media. And they increasingly reach out to stakeholders using digital and printed media. But for addressing audiences and explaining goals, the power of speechmaking remains as strong as ever.

The essential ingredients of a good speech are:

  • Clarity: Clear and unambiguous, so the audience understand it easily.
  • Definition: The message is definite and relevant to the subject matter.
  • Conciseness: Audiences get impatient with long speeches, so make them as concise as possible, but not incomplete.
  • Interesting: Keep your audience motivated to listen and pay attention.
  • Informal touch: A speech is a formal address by definition, but business these days is increasingly informal. So engage with your audience and present your speech in a personal and informal way.
  • Consider the audience: Bear your audience in mind, and their expectations and interests.
  • Speaking slowly: Talking slowly, in a relaxed voice, helps people understand.
  • Stay calm: Deliver the speech calmly, or the audience will turn off.
  • Use body language: Good speech goes with appropriate body language. Use nonverbal cues like looking and smiling to engage listeners.
  • Ensure audience participation: If you get the audience involved, you’ll ensure their attention through effective listening, and their solidarity with your speech.

Cake ingredients laid out on a white surface

Stay Focused on the Purpose of Your Speech

Picking up on the points here about clarity, definition, conciseness and interest, planning your speech is critical. Picture it as an inverted pyramid, base topmost, with your topic as the widest section. From there, refine it down into your purpose and, depending on the type of speech, your proposition, evidence and arguments. Think about the structure, the beginning, middle and end. Reinforce your thoughts and ideas, making sure everything you present to argue your case aligns with your general purpose. Leave out anything that could distract the listener from that.

What Kind of Speech do You Want to Make?

Speeches fall into four basic types – to inform, demonstrate or instruct, persuade and entertain. They aren’t mutually exclusive, and you may have several purposes in mind simultaneously. You need to be clear at the outset what you want to achieve.

Wooden figures stood in front of board with green tick

Let’s look at these speech types in more detail:

  • Informative: An informative speech is about facts, studies and statistics. It simplifies complex concepts for the audience. You break the content down into simpler, easier to digest, less ambiguous ideas. The main priority is to convey information accurately, but not necessarily persuade people to buy in.
  • Demonstrative: You want to demonstrate how something works, or how to do a certain thing. Typically informative speeches explain theoretical concepts, and demonstrative speeches talk from a more practical perspective.
  • Persuasive: Here, the speaker is generally trying to prove why their viewpoint is credible. And persuade their audience to support it. Persuasive speeches can be logical, using facts or evidence, like a lawyer’s courtroom speech. Or, they use emotional triggers to spark specific feelings in the audience. Persuasive speeches in business include presentations and pitches explaining why you’re the best choice to provide the product or service. They may involve visual aids and physical demonstrations, which makes them arguably informative and demonstrative. However, given you’re there to persuade the audience to choose your company or products, your purpose is persuasive. TED Talks are another common type of persuasive speech, spreading awareness about important topics and engaging your audience. We look at these at the end.
  • Entertaining: In business, you’re most likely to give these speeches at gatherings and special occasions. Or industry awards or public events. The core purpose is amusing your audience. Entertaining speeches are usually less formal in tone, communicating emotion rather than getting over the message about the facts. But they’re still important in building relationships, sharing goals and building your personal presence as a leader.

Further Types

The other types of speeches people talk about are variations on these four basic types:

  • Forensic: This is a speech made as part of studying and practising public speaking. In communication skills training, you might ask people to come with a prepared speech about a topic. You use their speeches to highlight particular areas for them to work on.
  • Motivational: These are a kind of persuasive speech, where the speaker encourages the audience to work on their performance or wellbeing. By pumping them with confidence, you guide your listeners to achieve their goals. Motivational speeches are more dependent on stirring emotions than logical persuasion. So, a team pep talk is a motivational speech where you motivate your team by creating a sense of unity between one another. Stir them up!
  • Oratorical: The word ‘oratorical’ literally means ‘relating to the act of speech making.’ So, you could say all speech types are oratorical. But for our purposes, oratorical means a particular kind of speech, quite long and formal. In business such speeches are likely to address serious issues and how to deal with them. Or, give comfort to your team, perhaps after an unfortunate event.
  • Debate: This has the structure of a persuasive speech, using facts and evidence to support your claim. It’s different, though, because its main purpose is justifying your position, rather than inviting the audience to support your views. The conflict of debating can be stressful, but it’s also beneficial, helping develop critical thinking and leadership skills. Because you can’t anticipate all the other people’s arguments, debate speeches are mainly improvised, or impromptu, This leads us onto
  • Impromptu: This is where you’re put on the spot, with little time for planning or preparation. Not great! If you have to step in for a colleague and give an update on a project or whatever, here are some ways to come out smiling: 

How to Speak Smarter ‘Off the Cuff’

  • Calm yourself and be ‘in the room,’ focused and ready.
  • Stay in the moment: concentrate on what you want to say, and what your audience want to hear.
  • Pick your theme and messages, and stick to them.
  • Speak slowly, don’t gabble.
  • Keep it short.
  • Listen to the audience: answer their questions and build connections with them.
  • Don’t be afraid to repeat your points, if you feel you need to.
  • Only use the visual aids you need.

Close ups of businessman adjusting cuffs

Take the Time to Prepare Properly, For Best Results

Last-minute improvising is all very well, but ideally, you will have time to prepare your speech and get it right. Now let’s explore how to craft a successful speech.

10 Steps to Successful Speech Writing

This sequence is especially important if you’re writing a speech for someone else:

  1. Know your audience: Who are they, why are they there?
  2. Identify your objective: Use the speech to further your objectives.
  3. Gather your information: Collect all the background information you can and fully familiarise yourself.
  4. Interview your speaker: it’s important to talk to them, if only briefly. Use this time to gain valuable insights, facts, personal anecdotes and a sense of the language they use. That way the speech will sound genuine and natural coming from them.
  5. Define one clear message: Create a single sentence that captures your message, as the basis for your speech.
  6. Decide on your arguments: Start structuring your speech by establishing the key points that support your main message.
  7. Develop an outline: Create an outline based on your arguments and plan how the information fits into this structure.
  8. Get writing: Having done your prep, the words should flow. Remove awkward phrases and decide which words are powerful and what’s padding and should come out.
  9. Get it signed off: If you’re writing for someone else, you may have different levels of sign off. You may also need to do some fact-checking.
  10. Add finishing touches: On the day, do you want the speech double-spaced or large font size? Avoid splitting paragraphs between pages, to prevent flipping pages in mid-thought.

There’s No Such Thing as a Boring Topic, Only Boring Angles

If you’re crafting your speechmaking on what seems to you like a dull subject, find ways to make it interesting. Start with ‘why.’ Get absorbed in your topic and let your personality shine through. And mix it up. Break up the flow of the presentation.

Four business people bored and asleep during meeting

Whatever topic you’re speaking about, focus on keeping the audience interested. Remember, engaging speeches are more like a conversation than formal writing. The phrasing is looser and more relaxed, yet still fully formed and polished. Here are some ways to spice up your speech:

  • Give it rhythm and pacing.
  • Vary the sentence structure. Use short sentences. Including long ones, occasionally, keeps the audience alert. Fragments of a few words now and then add dramatic emphasis.
  • Avoid passive sentences: Using the active voice makes sentences more powerful.
  • Repeat key words and points: Repetition helps the audience remember things and builds awareness of your central points.
  • Ask rhetorical questions to attract attention.
  • Personal experiences and anecdotes help you connect with the audience.
  • Use quotes: Good quotes work on different levels, making listeners think. Make sure you attribute them properly, better still to someone your audience will recognise.

9 Tips to Make Your Speechmaking More Memorable:

  • Arrange it in segments.
  • Include concrete details and facts.
  • Use words your audience understand.
  • Focus on concepts they grasp.
  • Interact with them.
  • Add quotable catchphrases.
  • Practice it thoroughly and deliver it confidently.
  • End with an engaging last sentence and a call to action.

You Too Can be a Better Speechmaker

Businessman standing at podium and giving speech

You’ve written the speech, now it’s time to deliver it. Here are some helpful tips:

  • Use cue cards: Have the full speech there as a handout, but if at all possible, don’t read it verbatim. Include an outline and some prompts to jog your memory. Write in short phrases, in big letters. Use one topic per card. Number your cards to keep them in the right order – because sod’s law says you’re going to drop them! And cue your visual aid usage.
  • Take care of yourself: It sounds simple enough, but you want to be on top of your game. Make sure you get plenty of sleep the night before and you eat a good meal. Have water to hand in your presentation, but make sure it isn’t cold. Cold water constricts your vocal chords and will change the pitch and fluidity of your voice.
  • Own the room: Arrive for the presentation early, if you can. This way, you’ll be in place to welcome your audience as if you have invited people into your home. You’re the host and you immediately own the room. Pause for two or three seconds before you start, to focus all the attention on you, and truly be in charge.
  • Concentrate on the moment: Even the best presenters admit they have room for improvement with their speeches. You may have full command of the subject. And you may have great personal presence, and speak smoothly and with poise in front of an audience. But there’s a vast difference between speaking and presenting information so it really gets your point across and moves people. Focus on really connecting with your audience.
  • Get feedback: Ask trusted members of your audience for honest feedback, or offer a feedback form people can complete anonymously.

And Finally: Avoiding Common Mistakes in Speechmaking: Saving Boring Speeches: Further Reading and TED Talks

Your speech might be brilliantly written, yet you could throw all that work away by not presenting it well. Here are some mistakes to avoid:

  • Getting nervous and not pausing before and after you say important things.
  • Not stopping when you transition from one key point to another, and between your beginning, middle and end.
  • Reading from your slides.
  • Data dumping: putting information on the screen that could go into a leave behind.
  • ‘Eye dart’: maintain eye contact for two to three seconds per person. Effective eye communication is a speaker’s most important nonverbal skill.
  • Distracting mannerisms.
  • Low energy: make sure you enjoy the moment.
  • Not rehearsing enough.

There are books you can read about public speaking. If you’re a traditionalist, there’s The Art of Public Speaking by Dale Carnegie. Or there’s TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking by Chris Anderson.

Screenshot showing a video of a Ted Talk by Chris Anderson

Finally, if you give a TED Talk, you have arrived as a speaker. It’s a big deal, but preparing is straightforward. Choose a topic you care about, and craft your message. And keep it concise. Develop a key takeaway for the audience, and draft your TED Talk as a story. Tailor your visual aids to your audience, your story and your brand. Practise endlessly until you’re off script.  And don’t worry about not being perfect, it’s okay to show your flaws. Vulnerability is the new six-pack, as that other great TED Talk star Dr Brene Brown might say!

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