7 Tips for Giving a Killer Speech

Does public speaking make you sweaty-palmed and anxious? These 7 techniques can calm your nerves and help you deliver a more powerful speech.
September 08, 2014

William Shakespeare once told us, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” The always colorful Dorothy Parker adapted Shakespeare’s aphorism and taught us that “brevity is the soul of lingerie.” My humble contribution to the power of getting to the point is that “brevity is essential in public speaking.”

Whether you’re talking about the length of a speech or the number of points you plan to cover, one of the most important qualities of an effective speech is that it’s relatively short. As proof, think about Abraham Lincoln’s "Gettysburg Address" and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Both are powerful and brief.

But a speech’s length is only one factor you need to consider when you’re preparing to give a speech at an event. Here are some other techniques you can use to make your speech memorable.

1. Deliver a performance, rather than a speech. 

A speech is primarily about the words that you speak, but a performance is so much more. It’s inflection, gesture, tension, resolution and suspense. Don’t believe me? Go see a one-man (or woman) play, and you’ll instantly understand what I mean. Performers work hard at capturing and keeping an audience’s attention, and words are only one tool in their arsenals. Don’t stop crafting your performance once you’ve written the text of your speech.

2. Use the power of eye contact. 

Bill Clinton was a master of eye contact—watch any of his speeches, and you'll see the master at work. Your audience is made up of individuals, and you should make an effort to make eye contact with each of them. Eye contact makes a person feel personally engaged in a speech, and engaged listeners are much more likely to be persuaded.

3. Don’t hide behind the lectern. 

The lectern is a crutch—a structure built to conceal knocking knees and shaking hands. It’s a barrier between you and your audience, and you must step out from behind it. Not only will your movement keep folks from falling asleep, but they’ll perceive you as more open and accessible if you’re out in the open rather than hiding behind a big wooden barrier.

4. Posture matters.

Don’t ever, ever slouch. It looks weak, and your message will inevitably be diluted by what your audience perceives as a lack of confidence. Stand up straight, and keep your shoulders back. Also, never let ‘em see you sweat. Even if there are lights on that make the stage feel like an oven, pit stains on your shirt are distracting. Make sure you wear clothing that will conceal any signs of nervousness. Project confidence. Always.

5. Tell compelling stories. 

The power of storytelling lies in the images that your audience will create in their heads as you spin your yarn. Rather than just loading folks up with information, if you tell a story, you’re making them active participants in your performance. Stories—brief, relevant stories—are a powerful tool.

6. Vary your cadence. 

Deliberately mixing it up in terms of your speech patterns—volume, speed and tone—keeps your audience from being lulled to sleep by a monotone. With regard to speed, slower is always better than fast. When in doubt, slow down and let the tortoise mind catch up to the rabbit speaker.

If you know you’re naturally a quick talker, you can build pauses into your speech by saying things like, “Now think about that for a moment” or “Let that sink in.” It takes an audience more time to process your points than it will take for you to articulate them. Give them time to ponder your brilliant message.

7. Speak about what you know and care about.

Passion translates into energy and authenticity, and that matters to your audience. If you’re not invested and engaged with your subject, why on earth would your audience care? Emotion pulls the audience in and gets them involved in the process. If you find you’re not moved by your topic, modify it until it matters to you. If you’re going to invest the energy in writing and delivering a speech, it should be on a subject that’s important to you.

You’ll notice that I didn’t give you any advice about content—that’s because you should be the expert on the subject. After all, you were invited to speak because you’re the go-to person in your field. But while you don’t need my help putting together your main points, using the techniques I’ve shared with you will help you deliver your message in a compelling and memorable way.

Mike Michalowicz is the author of Profit FirstThe Pumpkin Plan and The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur.  He is the founder of Profit First Professionals, an organization that certifies accountants and bookkeepers in the Profit First method. 

Read more articles on public speaking.

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