Speak up and be heard

Public speaking is an important skill for leaders. But if the thought fills you with dread, don’t be deterred – some of the most famous orators in history were nervous speakers. Here are seven tips on how to make a speech.

‘There are only two types of speakers in the world – the nervous and the liar.’ So said Mark Twain, who thought even successful orators were afraid of public speaking.

He should have known – Twain himself was one of the best-known public speakers of his day, in addition to being an accomplished author and wit. Lecture tours were a key source of his income and he relied on them to promote his books.

Twain – or Samuel Langhorne Clemens, to give him his real name – is one of many renowned speakers who were not natural orators. The former UK prime minister Winston Churchill, whose speeches are considered amongst the greatest in modern history, sought help to overcome a speech impediment and was criticised for being ‘far from confident’ in his delivery.

Although public speaking is one of the most common fears, the ability to give a speech is an important skill for leaders. Whether you are giving a motivational talk to team members, addressing an audience at a business dinner or being presented with a business award, you need to know how to get your point across and make a good impression.

Here are seven tips to help you give a great speech:

1. Decide on the theme
Be clear about why you are speaking, the subject you will be talking about and the key message you want to convey. Do you want to raise awareness of a problem, gain support for a cause, or motivate people to take action? A good speech should have a clear central theme throughout, and leave the audience in no doubt about the key message.

2. Research the audience
Good speakers manage to establish a rapport with the audience but it is important to understand who they are. Research their interests and acknowledge them by adding in relevant material. Adapt the tone and language, for example whether they are professionals or general public, and ensure any jokes and anecdotes are in keeping.

3. Create the framework
The best speeches convey passion but are based on a sound structure. Before you start to write the words, consider the outline. For example, you might want to start by saying ‘Thank-you for inviting me’, then warming up the audience by telling an anecdote or joke before introducing the theme and revealing the key message. You might then provide further evidence to support your point, finishing off with a call to action and a final ‘thank-you’.

4. Add in the content
Once you have the framework, start adding in the words. Use different types of content to add interest – a story, a personal anecdote, a joke or humorous story, particularly a self-deprecating one. You can also add in a few statistics and a quote from a famous person.

Emphasise the key points by repetition and examples. One technique is ‘fact-example-fact’ where you state the fact, give an example of how it works in practice then repeat it using different words.

Also think of ways to make the speech more interactive and engage the audience – pose a question and ask them to raise their hands.

5. Practise and review
Once the speech is complete, practise it over and over again. Read it into the mirror, have a friend watch you and give you feedback or perform in front of a video camera while pretending you are speaking to an audience then play back the video. You may have to adapt your delivery and also rewrite any weak parts of the speech to give more impact.

6. Perfect your delivery
Memorise your speech so you need only rely on one or two prompt cards to remind you of the key points, or do without them altogether. This makes it easier to speak directly to the audience, which in turn helps them to feel more engaged.

Some speakers recommend dividing the audience into thirds, and speaking directly to one person in each. As you move your gaze from one third to the next, choose a different person each time.

Learn to control your breathing so you are not speaking too fast. Follow Abraham Lincoln’s example and pause after the key phrases to add emphasis and allow them to sink into the audiences’ minds.

7. Fake confidence until you feel it
Preparation and practice will go a long way to helping you feel more confident. However try to channel nervous energy in a positive way – the heightened state of readiness can actually improve your performance.

Use visualization and picture yourself walking confidently on stage and giving a successful speech. Give yourself positive messages – ‘I can do it’.

Dale Carnegie, American writer and lecturer, suggests looking at the audience straight in the eyes and talking confidently as though they owe you money and are there to beg for an extension of credit.

Pretend you are feeling confident even if you aren’t – by acting calm you will start to feel calmer. Over time as you give more speeches and gain more experience, you will build confidence and become more at ease.

Public speaking is not easy and requires a major investment in time and effort. As Mark Twain once said: “It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.”

However good public speaking skills can extend your sphere of influence and transform your career. Being able to put your message across in a persuasive way makes all the difference as to whether it is heard.

Last updated:
27 February 2019