How to get good at speeches

Public speaking is an important skill in life, one that goes beyond presenting a paper at a conference. From asking a question in class, to authoring a YouTube tutorial and chairing a meeting, all the way to doing a formal speech at your best friend’s wedding, being able to stand up and talk is just one of those things we’re expected to do from time to time.

There are many puzzle pieces to delivering a good speech. The first one is that it’s not so much what you say (though we’ll cover that aspect, too), but how. There are three rules to how to deliver a speech: look confident, sound confident and be confident. If you don’t feel confident, fake it: imagine that you’re Batman, or Jacinda Ardern, or Ellen DeGeneres. Imagine that the room is empty, or full of cats, or one gigantic chocolate fountain – whatever works to make you less self-conscious.

The second puzzle piece is doing a lot of practice. Start by reading the speech aloud, making sure you are fluent in simply getting the words out. Then add the right tone of voice, injecting life and emotion into the sentences, the way good actors do when they record audiobooks. Add the appropriate gestures and body language (see below), and practice them in front of the mirror. Video yourself and play it back, noting down anything you’d like to change or improve. Finally, present the whole thing in front of your family or a few good friends, several times if necessary – not so much that you get thoroughly sick of your speech, but enough to be familiar with the words, the tone and the body language.

Body language is the third piece of the puzzle to giving a good speech, and the non-verbal message it sends is as important as the words you speak. Four elements go into body language: eye contact, facial expressions, posture, hand gestures.

  1. Eye contact. Look at the audience (even if in your imagination the room is empty or full of cats). Direct your eyes to the back left of the room for 4-5 seconds, move your eyes to the right and wait another few seconds, and so on. You don’t have to look at everyone if the group is large, but at least look in everyone’s direction. You can maintain brief eye contact with people, but just for a second or so, otherwise it’s just spooky.
  2. Facial expressions. When your face shows you’re happy, then your audience will feel happy as well, and they’ll be better predisposed towards your speech. Start off with a smile, like you’re excited to be there, even if you’re scared on the inside. As to the contents of your speech, people will rely on facial expressions to interpret what you say. This is a bit like acting, so make your expressions bigger than life: your smile brighter, your eyes opening wider in surprise, your brow furrowing deeper in anger.
  3. Stand up tall, shoulders back, arms loose and relaxed by your sides. This is your power pose. From here, it’s easy to point to your visual aids or to gesticulate.
  4. Hand Gestures. Usually, less is more. When you do move your hands, make the gestures strong, slow and defined. Good things to express with your hands are single-digit numbers (hold three fingers up to denote the number three, for example), action words like opening or revealing something (spread your arms palms up for “there you have it”), emotions (pleading hands, fist pumping the air), size and shape of objects.

Of course, while how you deliver your speech is of supreme importance, what you say can’t be total rubbish. Selecting the topic is the fourth puzzle piece. Go for something that appeals to you and also has the potential to interest your audience. Keep in mind that inspirational speeches (“How to Bounce Back from Failure”) tend to do better than informative ones (“20 Fascinating Facts about France”). Use simpler sentence structures than you would in an essay, use words that everybody knows, don’t be afraid to repeat your ideas – this is all because people usually don’t listen as well as they can read.

Cue cards

Resist the temptation to have your speech with you when delivering it, or you might end up reading instead of speaking to the audience. Cue cards bound with a ring (like a large keyring) work well, with a single keyword or a single sentence per cue card (for example, the beginning sentence of each paragraph or each new idea in your speech).

Moving your whole body

If you’re delivering your speech in class, there is probably not enough room to move around. If you’re on a stage, though, you can walk to a different location every 30 seconds or so, first addressing one side of the audience, then the other.

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