Help me be a good speech-giver tomorrow. Ready -- Go!
August 29, 2009 1:06 PM   Subscribe

Public Speaking Filter: I've been asked to speak in front of a very large group at a public rally tomorrow. I'm excited, but I've never done this before. Help!

I just learned that I'll be getting up in front of about 1000 people tomorrow to speak for about 5 minutes. My subject matter is all set, but I can really use help with acquiring that "certain something" that makes great speakers so comfortable to watch. They have a sort of command of the room that just makes you want to listen, you know? I know what it feels like to be an audience member in that situation, and that's the experience I'd like to provide for my audience, but I don't know what it feels like to be the speaker! Specifically, what are they doing? What are they thinking? What sort of preparation did they do?

I'm sure that I'm going to be nervous when I get up there, so I'm going to do my best to not talk too fast and to not have a jittery voice. But I think I can do even better if I know what things I can try to do (or not do) to make my speech come across in an easy, comfortable and confident way.

For what it's worth, I'll be talking about the importance of getting involved and volunteering for a specific cause. I spent my summer volunteering for it but there's still a lot left to do, so I'll be speaking from experience and talking about the importance of their continued efforts.

(And, I understand that I can't make an overnight transformation, but this is a rare opportunity and I want to be the best I can be! I hope it'll help to quell my nerves a little, too. ;)

Thank you in advance for your advice.
posted by inatizzy to Human Relations (29 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Speak as if you're talking to one person in the audience. It helps to find one person (in a group of 1,000, that could be more difficult) and, in your mind, be trying to tell the story you need to tell to just that person.

If you have slides, don't read from them. Let them stay behind and above you, adding to what you say, but not directing what you say.

Remember that everyone is there because they want to hear what you have to say. Nobody is there to judge your performance, so don't act as if you're being tested.

Good luck and have fun!
posted by xingcat at 1:10 PM on August 29, 2009

Sounds like you are speaking about something that is important to you. That is all you need. Speak from the heart. Sound enthusiastic. Pick out a few people in the front to speak to or look all the way at the back of the room.

It is my belief that knowledge of and enthusiasm for the subject is the most important part of being a successful speaker. You have both. Relax and go for it.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 1:15 PM on August 29, 2009

Former speech/debater: The best way to prep for this is just to practice your speech, over and over again. Write it down, time yourself (it's easy to go over and you don't want to - you don't want to bore people) and then keep practicing. In front of a mirror. In front of a wall. While you're making dinner, spoon in hand.

With enough repeats you'll not need the cards - keep them anyway, in case something ridiculous happens - and you'll feel a lot more natural than nervous. If you can give a short speech to a row of lockers or some potted plants, you can give it to a big crowd of people.
posted by cobaltnine at 1:35 PM on August 29, 2009

As a former organizer of open mics/readings, here are some general tips:

1) If there's a mic, get up close and personal. Like, almost kissing the mic, provided that doesn't make the sound system squeal (and provided you don't pop your Ps too emphatically). Being too far from the mic is the single most common goof-up, IMHO. If the microphone is a stand-alone and it's too low or high, don't be afraid to ask someone to help you adjust it. This isn't being high-maintenance - it's for the audience's benefit.

2) If you're naturally soft-spoken, speak up a bit. Don't hesitate to ask the crowd if they can hear you properly at the beginning of the speech.

3) Speak clearly and slowly (if you're prone to fast talking).

4) Make regular eye contact with people in the crowd, or at least look in that general direction. A lot of people cover up nerves by burying their faces in their notes, and forget they're addressing an audience. Better to speak from the heart and just refer back to the notes as a reference point, so you don't get lost.

5) Don't be too ambitious. Five minutes will fly by quickly and few audiences will object to a strong, succinct message, rather than a sprawling speech that runs over-time. If you're preparing something on paper, time it out at home (reading the speech aloud, not in your head), and remember to pause where the crowd might laugh, if it's that kind of speech.

6) Remember that most everyone in the crowd would likely have the same jitters in your place. They're not judging your speech-making abilities, and they'll be sympathetic if they sense that you're a bit nervous.

Best of luck, and kudos on the opportunity!
posted by nicoleincanada at 1:36 PM on August 29, 2009

One other thing - it can help to have 'talking points,' or a few key messages you want to get across. #1 - volunteering for this cause is fun. #2 - this cause makes a difference. #3 - here's how to get involved, with some details to support each point. That kind of thing.

It might also help to have a cue card with some things you absolutely have to mention - say, a website address or phone number - and refer to it at the end of your talk, since you will inevitably forget to mention something that seems obvious in your preparation.

But again, five minutes is pretty short, so don't let yourself get bogged down.
posted by nicoleincanada at 1:41 PM on August 29, 2009

Start out strong and confident. Take a second when you reach the podium to "own" the space in front of the room, and bring your audience in with your gaze. If you get them listening from the beginning, it will be much easier to hold their attention throughout the entire speech.

If you are able to see and make eye contact with members of the audience, definitely do so. Make sure that you tilt your head down towards them to make actual direct eye contact rather than accidentally looking down your nose (since you will be taller than your seated audience). This will create a warmer and more natural connection. Stick with a segment of the audience for a complete sentence or thought - don't just bounce around, scanning the room with your eyes.

Your personal enthusiasm for your topic will go a long way. Make sure you emphasize the vital words - don't be afraid to ham it up just a bit where appropriate (not quite Gospel preacher, but they are compelling speakers for a reason!). Make sure you enunciate each word clearly, even if it feels a little alien to your tongue. If people can't understand important words because they get swallowed, you will lose the audience for a time.


And, on preview, what everyone else said. :)

(I coach competitive high school speech.)
posted by chihiro at 1:44 PM on August 29, 2009

Good speech givers speak at a pace of about 3 minutes a double spaced typed page. Type out your speech (about 1 3/4 pages) and read it aloud to someone you consider smart and honest. If they say they don't understand something or anything else about your speech, change it. Do not explain or argue (since you won't be able to do with your audience). Then when you've got the speech right, deliver it at least 10 times. Think about how delivering a speech and reading aloud a text are different and aim for delivery. And keep in mind the audience is rooting for you (you're delivering a positive message to a captive audience. So long as you are prepared they are going to be in your corner. Enjoy the moment!
posted by Pineapplicious at 1:47 PM on August 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

Practice breathing and speaking from your diaphragm! That's how you give your voice a nice, authoritative boom and it's also a swell trick to slow down your rate of speech.

A good trick is to lie on your back to force your respiration into your diaphragm and place a hand on your stomach so you can feel those muscles working. Practice your material from this position so that you'll know where to focus your breath when you practice it standing up.

The other thing, which has already been mentioned, is to practice, practice, practice - rehearse as much as is possible so that you're hearing your material in your head when you sleep, so that you've got it memorized like your mother's name.

Break a leg!
posted by EatTheWeek at 1:47 PM on August 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

Memorize your speech. Given the event is very soon, this might not be feasible. The best way to not sound like you're "groping for words" is to, in fact, not grope for them by memorizing. And then, as suggested above, practice, practice, practice.

A successful amateur practices until they get it right. A professional practices until they never get it wrong.
posted by GPF at 2:02 PM on August 29, 2009

Practice speaking slower than you think you need to. Fast-talking is almost inevitable, but if you practice speaking not just at what sounds like the proper pace, but even a bit slower than that, your pace will even itself out at the event.

Also, since it's only five minutes, it might help to write out exactly what you want to say. I think that'll end up being about 4 typed double-spaced pages. Beware of hunching down and staring at your notes, but given that you have limited time, I think your primary concern will be hitting every point you need to make (and not getting stuck meandering around your first point or two for the whole five-minute slot). This is assuming your speech is mostly anecdotal ("I got involved with Habitat for Humanity in high school when I saw Jimmy Carter on TV, and I wanted to serve my community in a concrete way. Through Habitat, I've built 10 houses and gone on 3 cross-country volunteering trips. It has changed my life in the following ways...")

Alternatively, if you can come up with, say, 3 or 4 1-minute points you want to get across (#1. Habitat for Humanity is the most direct way to serve your community because [whatever the reason]; #2. They can accommodate any schedule and any skill level; etc.), you might be better off just writing those basic points out on notecards and speaking off the cuff. Practice introducing yourself and speaking on those points so that you can explain them well in the allotted time.
posted by Meg_Murry at 2:05 PM on August 29, 2009

Best answer: Imagine you're talking to one person, who you like and respect, and who likes you. Over a slightly bad phone connection.

Find something to do with your hands - hold them loosely at your hips/belly for example, because they often give away nervousness. Don't wring them, and gripping the podium is a little much if you don't intend to thump some scripture.

Don't write every word, write good notes, and write BIG. You don't want to be squinting and saying "um".

Slowness is emphasis. You're speaking faster than you think. Take time to pronounce words fully, pause when you say something interesting and important.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 2:11 PM on August 29, 2009

Be confident, don't apologize, keep it focused, keep it deliberate (slow) and keep your sentences short. If you're speaking to slides, for heaven's sake don't read the slides; just pick one salient point from it, and say things about it that aren't on the slide.
posted by davejay at 2:18 PM on August 29, 2009

I'm going to contradict some of the earlier posts and say DON'T MEMORIZE YOUR SPEECH!

Don't even try.

For one thing, you don't have that kind of time. For another, memorized speeches go to hell in a handbasket when you forget one line or where you are in the speech.

Memorize at most two attention-getting sentences that form the beginning of your speech, two really high impact sentences for the end of your speech (make them a call to action), and none of the middle of it. Write down the 3-4 points you're planning to cover, and practice speaking to your points as many times as you can between now and the speech, but don't lock yourself into words.
posted by jacquilynne at 2:30 PM on August 29, 2009

I do alot of public speaking. There are a bunch of tips, but like any other process, you need to spend some time integrating them.

Here's my 'best' single tip:
Bring a bottle of water. After your first sentence or three, take a swig of water. It'll slow you down, help you settle down and help you compose yourself.
posted by filmgeek at 2:31 PM on August 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If you can, practice your talk in front of real live humans tonight.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 2:31 PM on August 29, 2009

You'll have no problems if you just take an hour and deliver your speech ten times to the bathroom mirror tonight.
posted by Mr. Justice at 2:49 PM on August 29, 2009

These are a couple of points learned from a personal speaking course I took. I was a pretty awful public speaker because I broke most of the rules. I'm much more confident now.

Make eye contact whenever you are speaking. Don't lighthouse the audience when speaking, speak to one person and you'll make a connection with the entire crowd. Not the same person for every line, though.

Don't continue with your next line until you have mentally formed what you are going to say. What do you do while thinking? Stand there and breathe. It will feel like a minute to you but I can assure you it will be only a few seconds of silence to the audience. It will help focus your point and allow you to take a deep breathe to avoid the jittery voice. Silence between points is much better than ums and ahs, or worse, pausing to conclude your thought, mid-sentence.

Last point, don't try to cram more content into your speech than time allows. No one will criticize you for ending ahead of schedule.

I also like what jacquilynne has to say. Don't memorize but do know the important points you want to make.
posted by mordecaibrown at 4:19 PM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think the fact that you're speaking about something you are passionate about will help immensely.

I suggest you choose one main point and focus your speech around that. You don't have very much time to speak, and you don't want to ramble or stuff in too much information. Define your main point, and then choose a couple of examples or details to support that main point.

I like to write down a bare-bones outline with my main point and then the supporting details. It's to help me remember the order of my points more than anything. Also, that way I can check that I didn't leave something out. I memorize the outline but I don't memorize my speech. (I agree with those saying try NOT to memorize your speech. I find it much more appealing when speakers aren't reading or reciting, but rather appear to be speaking off the top of their head. Tough to do, but worth it if you can pull it off!)

Your plan to slow down is a good one. Don't be afraid to pause, either.

Good luck and have fun!
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 4:35 PM on August 29, 2009

Best answer: Tell them a story.

On Monday find a good toastmasters club to start attending. It's a great experience.
posted by tobiaswright at 5:22 PM on August 29, 2009

What toastmasters taught me was to watch your Um's and Ahh's. We don't even notice we are using them, but it affects how the speech comes across.
posted by chromatist at 5:48 PM on August 29, 2009

Toastmasters is great -- I met my wife in Toastmasters in '75 (poor wife!) but we both continue to love it - -I am active and she takes housework more seriously. You should think about joining it and you can find many clubs through

They have only one goal -- to make people better communicators, and they are a great non-profit group.

About your speech -- I'd practice giving it about 15 times or so, if it's important for you to do it right. Get your points down, the pausing, the eye contact, vocal variety, thank the introducer and hopefully have an ending that will endure a bit.

"So keep this in mind, when you think of blah-blah-blah, you have to remember the importance of blah-blah-blah. With it, you WILL reach your goals!"

Good luck! I know you'll do well!

posted by Kalepa at 9:02 PM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm a performer, I do buttloads of public speaking. Here are my top tips:

To practice:
Think of one person in the past whom you've persuaded to volunteer. Ideally a person who more or less fits the general demographic of the group (age, nationality, education level, disposable income level, etc). Speak your piece as though to that specific person. Practice it at home imagining that you're talking to them. Even use their photo to speak to, if you can. It helps A LOT. This is what professional actors do.

In the actual speech:
Greet the audience at the beginning, introduce yourself, look around, make eye contact- be human.
Try to start slow- give the audience a little time to sniff you out, plus starting slow helps with nerves.
Don't use notes if you can manage it. Point form only on a single cue card if you must.
Don't speak only to the front rows- try to speak to people at the halfway point, at the back, at the sides, too. Be aware of the amount of physical area your audience occupies in the room, and make sure your speech "touches" all those areas.
Leave room for humour. If something else at the event is noteworthy, note it. If you mess up or are nervous, make a little joke about it. If anyone whoops say "thank you" (even if it's just one person whooping, thanking them is hilarious). If someone sneezes say "bless you". Try not to speechify too much- the best speeches sound like a person in the same room as I'm in, just talking.

HAVE FUN! Try to find a moment during the speech to realize how fun it is to have people listening to you speak about a subject you care about.
Good luck!
posted by pseudostrabismus at 9:03 PM on August 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

Go slower than you think you need to. Remember the audience hasn't heard your speech, your ideas are new to them, and they want to understand you -- so give them a chance to digest what you've said. (I see a lot of student speakers rushing along as if the audience has heard it all before.) Going slow is especially important if it's an open-air event or otherwise iffy sound quality; it's easy to end up talking over your own echoes, which makes it impossible to understand you.

Your hands may shake at first, that's fine, it will pass, don't let it distract you. If you have a podium, put your hands on it -- either grip the sides, or steady your hands on the lower edge, etc.

Know verbatim what you're going to start with. "Hi, thanks for that introduction. It's great to be here today talking about X. I remember the first time I learned about X..." or whatever.

Know how you're going to end. If you find you're rambling a little toward the end, you know that you have a firm endpoint to head toward. "...All of which brings us back to the importance of X. And so I just want to say to each of you today, as we always said on that first mission trip, 'always know where your towel is'. Thank you!" or whatever.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:51 PM on August 29, 2009

Go slower than you think you need to. TIME YOUR TALK so you know what 5 minutes of speaking really sounds and feels like. Do not be afraid of moments of silence - what feels like an eternity for you is just a breath sound to the audience.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:20 AM on August 30, 2009

If you are the kind of person who is prone to make jokey asides during regular conversations, try to avoid that tendency during speeches. Most people won't hear it or get it, and then will spend the next few seconds asking the person next to them what you just said, and missing the next point you make.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 9:00 AM on August 30, 2009

Practice practice practice! The hardest thing is forcing yourself to practice out loud. It will feel weird at first but force yourself to do so.
posted by radioamy at 8:49 PM on August 30, 2009

Response by poster: Hey everyone! Thank you SO much for so many thoughtful responses. Your advice helped me keep everything in perspective (and it calmed my nerves, too), and I'm happy to report that the speech went *really* well. Like, so much that it surprised me.

It certainly didn't hurt that I came after a few really motivating speakers who had warmed up the crowd. But I'd like to think that my ease at the podium came largely because I knew from you the things that I should be sure to do. Mostly I focused on speaking slowly & clearly, on keeping my tone conversational & casual, I told an effective story to illustrate my main point, and I just tried to have fun. And it WAS fun!

In fact I'm still on a high, which is why I think this response is so long. ;) I got a lot of genuine, unsolicited praise by an immeasureable number of people, including speakers I really admire, which is making me reassess my perception of my abilities. And that could have implications in my life that reach far beyond tonight. It's sort of exciting. So thanks for helping to give me the framework to do a great job when it really mattered. You guys rock. :)
posted by inatizzy at 10:28 PM on August 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Congratulations on a job well done! I'm glad it went well, and I'm glad this thread was helpful. Thank you for coming back to tell us how it went.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:38 PM on August 30, 2009

What a nice fuzzy ending! Glad it was so great!
posted by pseudostrabismus at 2:30 AM on September 4, 2009

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