The recent commencement speech by David McCullough demonstrates how powerful the spoken word can be. The Wellesley High School English teacher gave the commencement address that rapidly gained notoriety as the “You Are Not Special” speech. McCullough was quoted – frequently out-of-context – throughout major media outlets. Most of us probably don’t want to see our remarks on the editorial page, but we do want to give a good speech. We want to keep our audience’s attention and convey our message well. We might not aspire to hit the news headlines, but we don’t want to appear less than competent. For many people, public speaking is a daunting prospect; for others, it’s downright terrifying. With some preparation and planning, giving a talk in public doesn’t have to be an ordeal. It can be a valuable opportunity to make a positive impression, to open doors and to network in your community or industry. Put aside the idea that only certain people are good at speaking in public. Almost anyone can do a good job; however, it does require some effort.
Prepare and Plan
The first thing to remember is to plan ahead. Often the best “impromptu” remarks are anything but off-the-cuff. The speaker has spent time preparing and thinking about what he or she is going to say and how to say it. The best speakers consider the who, what and why of the speech. This applies whether you’re making a wedding toast or giving an address at a corporate meeting.
Who: Who are the attendees? How much do they know about the topic? What is the purpose of their presence?
What: How long are you expected to speak? What is the key message you want the attendees to hear? There can be one or two secondary messages, but if you want your audience to remember a key point, don’t confuse this opportunity with a seminar. Get to your point without too much preamble. Speeches are not meant to be complex presentations.
It is important that the content of your speech – the vocabulary, ideas, concepts, etc. – are appropriate for your audience. This doesn’t just mean avoiding insensitive jokes or comments, it also means making sure you will be understood. Don’t use jargon or scholarly language that is not part of your (or their) everyday language.
Why: Why is everyone gathered together? Is it a celebratory social event or a business occasion? The nature of the event will set the tone and content of your remarks.
Jot down notes detailing your opening, the body of your speech and a short concluding comment. Rehearse either alone or with a trusted colleague. This will also help you determine how much time your speech will take. Remember, no one ever complains about speeches being too short.
You might admire certain speakers, but don’t try to adopt someone else’s style. The best talks are the ones that are authentic. Be yourself. Stories that come from your own experience are fine, but don’t overdo it. And avoid jokes because few people do these well with a microphone in front of them. Real enthusiasm and passion come through when you retell something from your own life.
On the Day
Take care of all the details you can in advance – from organizing your notes to deciding what you will wear. Avoid any last minute panic. Visit the room where the event will take place so that you can get familiar with the setup of the podium and the sound equipment. Do a sound check if you can.
No alcohol whatsoever before you make the speech – ever! When you get to the microphone, take a couple of deep breaths, look around and smile. That slight pause will help you take charge. It’s your audience and they want you to succeed.