How to write—and deliver—better speeches

Soaring oratory begins with storytelling and setting limits, and it culminates with preparation and engagement techniques.

I love TED Talks, but they’ve created a problem in our society.

Everyone now expects all public speakers to be charming, profound, funny and breathtakingly articulate. You don’t have to be any of these things to deliver a great speech, but you do have to prepare.

Let’s begin with 10 ways to write a better speech:

1. Mind your time limit and word count. The average person speaks at somewhere between 125 and 150 words per minute. It’s almost always better to speak more slowly than too quickly. Thus, if you’re speaking for 20 minutes, shoot for a total word count between 2,500 and 3,000.

2. Avoid word-for-word speeches. Your delivery will be more natural if you speak from an outline rather than a script. You can memorize an introduction to get yourself going, but only use notes for the rest. Your speech might not be perfect, but genuine engagement with the audience will make up for lapses.

3. Divide it into five parts. Every speech should have an introduction, point 1, point 2, point 3 and a conclusion. Tell people what you’re going to tell them, tell them what you want to say and then wrap up by telling them what you just said. I’d divide a 20-minute speech as follows:

  • Introduction: two minutes (250 words)
  • Point 1: five minutes (625 words)
  • Point 2: five minutes (625 words)
  • Point 3: five minutes (625 words)
  • Conclusion: three minutes (375 words)
  • Total word count: 2,500 words (20 minutes)

4. Shower your audience with stories, not facts. Stories are the spoonfuls of sugar that make the medicine (facts) go down. Think about the worst speech you’ve ever heard in your life. Now, reflect on the best. I’d wager that the former was filled with facts and the latter with stories. Human beings are hardwired to appreciate and remember stories, so pepper your presentation with anecdotes and examples.

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5. Have a clear, singular takeaway. Don’t expect your audience to walk away reciting your 10-point corporate plan. Instead, express the key message of your speech—the most important thing you want your audience to remember—as a single sentence. Write it on a piece of paper so you can see it as you’re writing your speech.

6. Repetition is mandatory. People don’t listen to speeches the same way they read text. You talk, your words travel into their ears, and if they happen to be thinking about what to make for dinner that night, your message will not get through. Your listeners have no rewind button, and they can’t flip back the page. That’s why you must repeat your key points at least three times: once in the intro, once when you make them and once again in your conclusion.

7. Don’t waste your opening. I see speakers get off on the wrong foot in three ways. First, they waste time shuffling paper. You should be ready right as you take the stage. The second common mistake is thanking too many people. The first 45 seconds are your most precious chance to grab the attention of your audience. Thank the person who introduced you with a brief sentence, then dive right into an attention-grabbing opening. Finally, some people feel obliged to begin with jokes that are unrelated to the actual speech topic. You want humor to be organic and somehow related to the subject you’re covering. The best way to begin a speech is with an interesting fact or a lively story.

8. Write for the ear rather than the eye. Use simple, clear language—even if you’re writing the speech for someone else. Practice out loud to detect potential linguistic stumbling blocks. Make your sentences are short enough to avoid having to gasp for breath halfway through them. Use contractions, because that’s how real people speak.

9. Be yourself. Barack Obama and Winston Churchill are both considered excellent speakers. They’re also totally different. You can learn from observing great speakers, but you have to be true to yourself. Don’t try to be someone you’re not. If you’re writing a speech for someone else, interview them and learn their speech patterns—as well as their stories.

10. Be brief. If you’re asked to speak for 60 minutes, shoot for 45 or 50. If the goal is 20, make it 18. No one ever complained about a speech that was too short.

Next, here are seven ways to deliver your speech more effectively:

1. Practice more than once. A TED Talk presenter once told me that she had delivered her speech 48 times before the big day. For most of us, three practice runs should suffice. Just remember the expression: “Professionals practice in private; amateurs practice in public.”

2. Record yourself. Many of us pad our speeches with verbal fillers. The prime minister of my country, Justin Trudeau, does this with “uh.”

Try recording yourself with your cell phone. If you discover verbal fillers, slow down your speech and try to avoid them. Slow, careful speaking is the answer.

3. Arrive early on delivery day. Try to get to your venue at least 15 minutes early so you can scope out the room, get comfortable and test the sound system.

Position yourself in the audience, and start talking to people as they arrive. This will help you connect with your audience and get the speech juices flowing.

4. Calm your nerves. The best way to alleviate speech stress is to practice beforehand. If you practice rigorously then your body will know what to do—even if your nervous system is going haywire.

Pay attention to your breathing. Talk yourself through slow, deep breaths to calm jitters. Write your notes on firm paper so it won’t shake. (Cardstock is sturdier than regular paper.)

Finally, pressing your index finger to your thumb is a simple calming maneuver. No one in the audience will notice you doing it.

5. Use your eyes effectively. Many speakers look above the heads of their audience or vaguely scan the crowd. I suggest you look directly into the eyes of one person in the audience. Do this for a full sentence at a time, longer if you can bear it. Then switch to another person, and do the same thing.

Move to different parts of the room as you do this. If the person looks away, move on to someone else. This human-to-human contact is every speaker’s secret weapon. Use your eyes in your favor, and remember to smile.

6. Vary your speaking speed. Try to make your delivery as interesting and varied as your words. If you have a story or statement that excites you, let your pitch and pace match your excitement. If you’re saying something important or dramatic, slow down for emphasis.

7. Be careful with your volume. Recently, I was obliged to watch a debate in which the speaker spoke far too loudly for the small room. I missed almost all her content because my ears were quivering.

This is another good reason to arrive early and test your volume. Just remember that once the room fills with people, their bodies will become a sound buffer, so speak up.

The bottom line

The ability to write and deliver effective presentations is an advantageous weapon in every communicator’s arsenal. Improving your public speaking chops can increase your sales, build your confidence and boost your career. It’s worth investing your time to develop these essential skills—even if you never get near a Ted Talk stage.

A version of this post first appeared on Publication Coach.

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