How to inject genuine emotion into an impromptu speech

Give the text at least one read-through—aloud—and pick a sentence you want your audience to remember.

Lifting a speech off the printed page can be a challenge for any speaker.

Even a great text can become stilted and dull if you can’t imbue it with some degree of emotion and vitality. It’s that much harder when the text is new to you and you’ve not had ample time to practice.

This happens to communicators and executives quite often. Maybe you’re communicating in a crisis or filling in for a colleague who had to cancel at the last minute. Perhaps you had a scheduling snafu that left you with no time to prepare. A last-minute development may have made the speech you did rehearse for unusable, and now, for whatever reason, you face a tough situation.

It’s tough—but not impossible—especially if you use these four tips to connect with your audience:

  • Skim the speech. Take a moment to think about its emotional arc. Now mark it up in the margin for emotional tone. Words such as light, stirring, crescendo, somber, concerned, angry, happy or grateful can provide the cue you need in the moment.
  • Pick the one sentence you want your audience to remember. Take two minutes to commit it—as much as possible—to memory.
  • Give the speech a read-through (aloud if possible). Before you approach the microphone, mark up breaks between phrases and words you want to emphasize. If you have time for another read-through, go for it.
  • Just before you take the stage, take a moment. Take a deep breath, hold it, and let it out unhurriedly. Do that two more times. Now picture yourself delivering that first line. Take one more deep breath. Now go forth and knock ’em dead.

Obviously, the best option is to have ample time to prepare properly. If you don’t, the above four steps can be your lifeline.

You might not end up producing soaring, inspiring rhetoric, but at least you won’t sound like Siri.

Rob Cottingham is a speechwriter, presentation coach and speaker based in Canada. A version of this post first appeared on LinkedIn. Read the rest of Mr. Cottingham’s guide to lifting a speech off the page here.

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