Many books on public speaking have a very simple test as a key to a successful speech: Tell them what you are going to say, say it, and then remind them of what you said.
As you work out what to say, remember a few caveats:
• Do not be over-ambitious. It really is pointless writing a beautiful speech if you are unable to deliver it beautifully. So don’t waste your time carefully crafting every sentence with just the right adjectives and adverbs.
• Avoid clichés and long, wordy phrases. Simplicity pays; just use ordinary everyday language. Even if your audience knows the subject well, there is a big difference between reading an article and listening to someone speak. Make it easier for them—and yourself.
• Beware of humor. What might seem very funny to you late at night in your own room could fall flat on your audience. That will leave both you and them feeling awkward. If you have them and feel comfortable using them, amusing anecdotes can work well. But you certainly do not have to be funny to be good.
When you have got your ideas sorted and feel prepared, there are two more exercises before you finish.
Firstly, time-keeping is essential. Run through what you have prepared and be certain that it falls just short of your allotted time. Even setting aside the concerns of the moderator or chairman, it is always better to leave an audience hungering for more rather than fidgeting and looking at their watches.
Secondly, you are not going to stand in front of an audience—with or without a lectern—with your entire presentation written out in full (see my comments about eye contact below). Until you are elected president, you can be fairly relaxed about the media hanging on your every word. So you need to put all this preparation into note form—preferably a few words that can be easily viewed on one side of index cards. But please don’t do what one student memorably did for me and arrive for a 5-minute presentation with 35 cards in his hand!
Finally, why not rehearse? Get accustomed to what you have to say and how you are going to deliver it. You can do that in the privacy of your own room in front of a mirror or in front of a friend or family member. You will not be the first to do so; some of the best speakers do just that.
After preparation, the issue becomes one of delivery. This is difficult to put in writing since we are all so different. A hand gesture on one person can work just fine, while on another it might irritate or distract.
Next week, I’ll give more tips, or you can read my whole article on public speaking here.
Scott Hamilton is partner at The Westminster Connection, LLP. This article is part of the Institute for Humane Studies Guide to Public Policy Careers.
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