As public relations practitioners and communicators in general, speeches are a common part of our professional lives. Whether it is simply writing and preparing one for a higher level executive to deliver or writing and delivering it yourself, a strong, well prepared and well delivered speech can have a significant professional and sometimes personal impact.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s seminal “I Have A Dream” speech is still quoted and referenced all the time, more than fifty years later. And many consider it one of the most defining and impactful moments of the entire Civil Rights Movement. However, writing and delivering an effective speech isn’t always the easiest task, particularly the delivery part for many.
Full disclosure, I have major stage fright and public speaking is quite honestly one of my least favorite parts of public relations. However, it was something I knew I could not avoid and have worked very hard at overcoming. Don’t get me wrong, I still get nervous, my voice still shakes slightly but I have come a long way from the person who literally trembled standing in front of a classroom of my peers to deliver a presentation. The following are some simple tips for writing and delivering an excellent speech.
Writing a Good Speech
- Have a Plan – As with every project, you need a well-structured, well-designed plan before writing your speech. What is it about, what are the key points, what are the relevant quotes/references you will use, how are you going to transition from one point to another, etc. Without a solid plan outlining the details of your speech, you are likely to struggle a lot more and end up with a disorganized mess.
- Keep It Short – As William Shakespeare said, “brevity is the soul of wit.” The easiest way to not only lose your audience’s attention but go off course with your point is to be long winded. Always keep things as clear and concise as possible. Establish no more than 3 to 5 key points to expand on briefly. One of the most important skills in public relations is learning to say a lot as briefly as possible.
- Know Your Audience – As is the case with any form of communication, it is very important to know and understand your audience. Doing so will help you strike the right tone and perfect balance for your speech. For example, will you be speaking to an audience of college students or industry thought leaders or a minority group, etc.
- Humanize Yourself – It is always wise when communicating anything to anyone to try to speak to them on a personal level. One of the easiest ways to do that is to personalize or humanize your comments as much as possible. That is why using cute anecdotes or stories from your own life, career, etc. is often a very effective way to grab the listener’s attention.
- Be Visual – Many people tend to be very visual and are better able to retain information when they can see it, when it’s bold or colorful. Therefore, attaching visual aids to your speech is another very effective way to grab and maintain the listener’s attention. This can include anything from story boards, power point presentations, banners, etc. Being visual can also include your prose. Sometimes the use of imagery and poetic language can paint a clearer picture in the listener’s mind, which can get your point across more effectively.
- Be Memorable – Whether it is a funny story or cute anecdote or a really clever line, it helps greatly to have something in your speech that will truly stand out and be memorable. Consider John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech for example. There are probably very few who remember that speech from beginning to end but millions know the line “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” That one line solidified that speech as one of the greatest of all time.
- Reference Other Great Lines, Quotes, etc. – Sometimes the best way to get a point across is to reference the words of another. Letitia Elizabeth Landon said, “an apt quotation is like a lamp which flings its light over the whole sentence.” Referencing words and phrases and quotes that are not only relevant to your point but recognizable to the listener is a great way to not only grab their attention but resonate with them.
- Open Strong and Finish Strong – There is a reason that the introduction and conclusion are often two of the most powerful parts of any writing. The introduction is your chance to grab the listener’s attention immediately and the conclusion is where you summarize everything you’ve said in one powerful paragraph. Your conclusion is the last thing the listener will hear and likely one of the things they will most remember from the speech so make it count.
- Why Should The Audience Care – One of your main goals in presenting a speech is getting the audience to care so they want to listen and will remember what you talked about. Well to do that, you have to give them a reason to care and that is where it is essential to write your speech always with the thought in mind of “will the audience care about this, will they understand it, will they relate to it, etc.”
- Revise, Revise, Revise – One of the most, if not the most important step in writing anything is editing and making revisions. It is never a good idea to go with a first draft. No matter how talented and skilled you are, as human beings we are always prone to error and there will always be something that was missed or accidentally misspelled or misused, which will only be caught in the editing and revisions.
Delivering a Speech
- Practice – Practice makes perfect and one of the most important steps for perfectly delivering a speech is to practice beforehand. This should include practicing your timing so you make sure that you stay within the allotted time, practicing to better memorize the speech and perfect your delivery and to get a sense of how it will sound. Practicing with at least one person listening is also very helpful as they are likely to give you helpful feedback.
- Use Relaxation Techniques – Even the most confident people get nervous before a big speech or presentation. Being nervous is a normal human condition and sometimes all it takes to calm your nerves is a few breathing and relaxation techniques. Take some deep breaths and try to get to a calm and centered place before walking to the podium or stage or wherever it may be.
- Maintain A Confident Stance – There is an old saying that you should fake it ‘til you make it. Even if you are nervous, it doesn’t mean others have to know it or see it. Maintaining a confident stance and/or appearance can help you be confident and deliver a confident speech. This includes things like standing up straight with your shoulders back, maintaining good eye contact, etc. If you look like you know and believe what you are saying, others will pay attention and believe you.
- Do Not Read Your Speech – The worst thing you can do is basically read your speech word for word off note-cards or a piece of paper. You will certainly lose the audience’s interest and more importantly, it will give the impression that you are not confident and truly knowledgeable in what you are speaking about. That is one reason why practicing is so important. You have to be able to deliver your speech as if it is something spontaneous that you have only just thought of and decided to share, even if you have worked for days or even weeks on it.
- Slow Down – I know that I have a tendency to talk really fast the more nervous I get, almost like I’m just trying to rush through this painful ordeal. And that is something I have had to work on through the years. That is, learning to slow down, take a breath and make sure my words and thoughts are coming across clearly and articulately. No matter how amazing your speech, no one is going to remember it or care if they barely understood a word you said.