The number one rule in speechmaking of any kind is that the audience must find value in the ideas and message you have to share. If they don’t, you’ve wasted your time. It’s as simple as that.
You might have been provided with your topic. If you have to choose your own, apply three primary criteria : choose to talk on a subject (1) that will be of relevance to your audience, (2) about which you are knowledgeable, and (3) about which you are passionate (or at least highly interested).
Be clear on your purpose. Are you aiming simply to inform ? Or is the goal entertainment, as in a humorous after dinner speech ? Or perhaps to persuade to a point of view, or to inspire to action ? May be to celebrate an achievement or a life ?
Then, decide on your “golden thread”, or central theme. Try, always, to stick to one theme, and have everything you say link directly to that theme. Your topic might be broad, but your “golden thread” should not be.
For example, you might decide on Conflict Management as your topic. The subject is huge. To keep your speech focussed, you might settle on “The Emotion of Conflict”, with your purpose people to inform your audience how staying calm can prevent conflict from escalating.
Your field of expertise might be Leadership. Again, the subject is expansive. Your golden thread for a speech might be “What kind of leader are you ?”, or maybe “Can you lead without a title ?”
Even the mandatory workplace presentations (about the budget, for instance) can be made far more relevant by choosing an appropriate central theme, such as, in this case, “How YOU can make the difference”.
So now you have your topic, you are clear on your purpose, and you’ve decided on the central them on which you will focus. You’re ready to start constructing your speech.
Every speech has the same construction formula : opening, body and conclusion.
Your opening will grab the attention of your audience, and motivate them to listen to the rest of your speech. The body will give them detail to build on their interest, and your closing will leave your desired message imprinted on their minds (ideally, of course!).
The following are possible effective ways to open your speech :
- Ask a question,
- Refer to a recent event of interest,
- Make an unusual statement,
- Make a direct reference to a problem,
- Show a picture, or diagram or object,
- Quote shocking statistics,
- Announce clearly the main points you want to cover, or
- State the purpose you wish to achieve.
BEWARE of the joke or personal story in your introduction, unless you are particularly skilled at telling jokes AND you are sure your audience will be receptive to the humour. If in doubt, leave it out.
The introduction should take up 10 to 15 % of the total time of your presentation.
An effective conclusion draws all points presented in the speech together, and refocuses attention and emphasis on the central theme. The conclusion makes up 10 to 15% of the entire speech. No new information should be introduced in the conclusion of a speech.
You might try the following:
- Summarising the main points of your presentation,
- Restating your opening,
- Using a quotation, statistics, an analogy, or a vivid illustration to sum up your central theme,
- Ending with a direct appeal for support or action, or
- Giving your audience something challenging to think about.
The closing should take up 10 to 15 % of the total time of your presentation.
Your first words create the atmosphere you want, and grip the attention of the audience. Your last words leave listeners with your message in their minds.
It is often easiest to start with the opening and conclusion, and then to fill in the detail of the body of your speech.
The body will take 70 to 80% of the bulk of your speech.
Decide on THREE, or an absolute maximum of five, core ideas you want to include in your body. Make sure they all have direct relevance to your central theme. Make sure they flow, one into the other. For example, you might use the past, present and future model, or you might start by describing a concept, then explaining why it is important to individuals, followed by outlining how they can apply the theory to their lives. Or, you might select three separate aspects of one theme – for example, if your central theme is wellness, your three ideas might be a healthy diet, exercise and emotional wellness.
For each of the ideas, gather detail – perhaps facts, perhaps opinions, perhaps quotes, perhaps visual aids – to flesh out your message. One of the most powerful ways to make a point is to tell a story – preferably personal. Include relevant anecdotes if you possibly can.
As you proceed through your construction, ask yourself constantly, “Is this relevant to my audience ?”, and “Will this help me achieve my purpose ?”. If the answer is no, leave it out.
Some speechwriters prefer simply to jot down key points as they craft their speeches. I recommend writing out a speech word for word (and then trimming down to key points later if necessary). Writing the full speech has numerous benefits – it allows you to determine your speech length (both by word count and by saying it out loud), practise it in full, check constantly for flow and for relevance, share it, and to repeat it at other functions.
(The average person speaks at a rate of between 120 and 140 words per minute. Calculate the number of words your speech should contain, and do your best to stick within the limit. Thus, a 10-minute speech should preferably have a word count of 1200 words, and of no more than 1400 words. If you’re using visual aids, don’t forget to allow time to show these. If you’re using humour, allow time for laughter.)
Crafting a speech is a time-consuming exercise. The shorter the speech, the longer the preparation time. This might sound counter-intuitive, but condensing your ideas into few words takes very careful word selection, preceded by plenty of planning. I strongly recommend at least a fortnight to put together a speech that matters (and probably a week before that to mull over your ideas).