The Short Guide To Preparing A Speech

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So you have to give a speech? Here are a few questions to help you plan.

Who are the audience?

Researchers in your field will understand specialist jargon. A general audience means that you should choose simpler language. A hungry (before lunch), sleepy (first session after lunch), or less-than sober (wedding reception or conference dinner) audience will need a different speech than a fully-alert audience. Keep it short for the hungry, lively for the sleepy, and put in a few jokes for the merry.

What do they want – or need – to know?

If you are very lucky – or very good - they may remember three points from your speech. So think about what you would like those three points to be. They may only remember one point, so do make sure your key message comes across well.

What is the room layout? 

Knowing the layout before you make the speech helps to reduce nerves. If you are using a script, check there is a lectern so you don’t have to hold the script. And sort out a microphone if you need one.

What structure will I use for the speech?

Plan your talk – don’t just waffle. One effective structure is to have three main points, perhaps with two subheadings for each. The level of detail under each subheading depends on the time allowed. If you have just two minutes, give the three main points. Forty minutes allows time for more detail to be presented, but the structure should be the same.

What evidence, examples, or illustrations can I use to support each point?

If you have time, don’t just state an argument, give a supporting example. Make it personal if possible. Note how the media report budget news in terms of its impact on ‘a typical person earning X’ or ‘typical family with an income of Y’.

Can I use formal speechwriting techniques?

To misquote Barack Obama, ‘Yes you can.’.

Contrasts ‘I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him’ or ‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country’ help to make things clear and memorable.

Grouping things in patterns of three also helps.

The ‘rule of three’ works in many languages. Singers may know the Welsh hymn seeking a ‘calon hapus, calon onest, calon lan’ (a happy heart, an honest heart, a pure heart). Linguists will know ‘Liberte, egalite, fraternite’. Early 20th-century historians will know ‘Ein volk, ein reich, ein fuhrer’. And perhaps we should all know St.Paul’s rule of three, originally written in Greek: ‘Faith, Hope and Love, but the greatest of these is Love’.

Selective use of alliteration, quotations, and repeated phrases can also be used. ‘I have a dream’ may not be suitable for a research presentation, but if you have a key phrase, do repeat it where appropriate.

Should I write a full script or just notes?

Either can work well. Choose whichever is better for you. If you write a full script, print it in large font so you can read it comfortably. Leave lots of space for any handwritten last-minute alterations, and do number the pages – in case you drop them on the floor just before your speech.

How long will the speech take?

Note the schedule for your speech, and make sure you practice beforehand to check the timing.

How am I going to deal with nerves?

Different people have different techniques, so find something that works for you. One technique is to have a glass of water with you, and to take a small sip just before you start the speech. Excess nerves often cause people to talk too quickly; the deliberate act of taking the water reminds people to slow down.

And if you get stuck during the speech, a pause for another brief sip will look natural yet give you time to recall the next part of your speech.

Have I written down – and committed to memory – my closing line?

Tony Benn, arguably one of the best speakers of his generation, said that every speaker should write the last line of their speech first. Try it – find out if this works for you. Most speakers don’t do this, but they do know that a strong ending is important.

In a research presentation, your last line may well be ‘Thank you for listening. I’ll be happy to take questions.’ So remember your second-last line as well. Use it to re-state the main point of your talk.

Remember giving talks can be fun. Use the questions above to help you plan.

Related articles:

Rhetoric & imagery – text and notes on Obama’s election night speech 2008

John F. Kennedy Inaugural Address – note speech-writing techniques

Teaching skills: Delivering an Effective Lecture

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