Does a scripted speech feel like an anvil around your neck?
“Put me up on stage in front of a microphone to speak off the cuff, and I do great,” one of my workshop participants said, “but give me a written speech to read, and I just go dead.”
It’s not surprising: We get plenty of practice speaking spontaneously with verve and emotion. It’s practically all we do in conversation—but reading from the page? That can feel stilted, artificial, even a little fake.
For many people, the result is a listless monotone or a sing-song voice that, if anything, sounds even less lifelike.
Here are some ways to breathe new life into written speeches. You may not need all the scaffolding suggested here, and you’ll need less of it over time. Still, the stages themselves—making those big delivery choices, knowing your speech, rehearsing thoroughly and delivering effectively—are crucial for performing your best.
Follow these steps:
1. Make your big choices.
Start with the emotional tone you’d like to strike in the various sections, and capture them. Mark your speech up. Go ahead and use highlighter pens, one color for each kind of tone; you might choose pink for strong and passionate, blue for cool and analytical, green for light-hearted and humorous. (There are probably as many systems for marking up a speech as there are speakers who use them. Some use symbols in the margins; some draw arrows pointing up or down to show rising and ebbing levels of emotion.)
Now look at your speech as a sequence of shifting tones. Are you varying the tone often enough to keep your audience interested? Are any of the transitions jarring (say, from quiet contemplation to uproarious laughter in two lines)? Is the overall emotional arc of your speech building to the emotion you want to end on?
This is the time to rearrange the elements to make that arc work for you.
2. Know your speech.
The most important key to bringing your speech to life is knowing it. You must know it well enough that you don’t have to reach into your memory for the next sentence or passage—that it’s right there waiting for you.
Sure, you have the text in front of you, but it should be a prompt, not a script. When you know your speech that well, you can speak naturally and confidently because the words are coming from inside, just as when you speak in a conversation.
Even if you don’t have a chance to commit the entire speech to memory, try to know the most important passages by heart:
- The first few sentences, so you can dive right in and connect with the audience
- The conclusion, so you can finish strong, looking people in the eye
- Those crucial sentences and phrases you want people to take home with them
If you know the rest of your speech well, know those parts cold.
Knowing your speech means knowing not just the words, but how you’ll deliver them—and that means rehearsal. You aren’t genuinely prepared until you can act on the choices you’ve made to lend your speech spark and vigor.
As you rehearse, you’ll make more choices—subtler ones about pace, volume, pauses and gestures. Where you make a deliberate choice you want to remember, mark it down. Underline words you want to hit hard; use oblique strokes to break sentences into phrases. Do whatever works to help you to remember for next time.
Read expressively. You can start even before you have a speech in hand. Observe yourself in conversation, and notice how you naturally project emotion and emphasize words and phrases, and what happens to your pitch, volume and pace—as well as your face and body language. Bring those expressive tools deliberately into your delivery as you rehearse.
4. Deliver effectively.
Visit the venue before you speak. (An audiovisual check is the perfect time to do this.) Visualize yourself walking out onto the stage and up to the microphone and saying your opening line.
While you’re waiting to speak, do a little warmup. Recite some song lyrics or an old poem to shake off the vocal dust. A few breathing exercises will help dispel anxiety while preparing your respiratory system for action.
When the time comes, hit the stage confidently, the way you visualized earlier. Head to the mic, take a moment—and then begin.
There are entire books out there about effective speech delivery, but in terms of bringing a written speech to life, here are the two things that can make the biggest difference:
- Make eye contact. It’s a huge part of turning recitation into delivery, and you can’t do that if your eyes are on the page. So as much as possible, look at the audience, not at your speaking notes.
- Give it your all. Deliver all your energy and all your focus. Don’t think about getting it over with, or whether you’re impressing your boss, or even how you’re doing. Any time you feel your mind drifting to thoughts like that, refocus gently but firmly on your message and your audience.
Now, go forth, and knock ’em dead.
Rob Cottingham is a speechwriter, presentation coach and speaker based in Canada.