You’ve been asked to give a speech, and you’ve got a great one written. Oh … you don’t? Well, first read our companion story “Writing a speech? How to nail it.” And then, read on for seven tips about the nuts-and-bolts of sticking the landing.
- What’s my pace? Shoot for a nice, conversational cadence. Many people are fast talkers; throw nerves into the mix, and you can end up sounding like you’re making a rush for the exit. On the other hand, you don’t want to mimic the “trudging through molasses” pace of the iconic teacher in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (“Anyone? Anyone?”). Practice makes perfect. Give your speech in front of a mirror or to a friend. Record yourself. Make an honest assessment and adjust.
- So, how many words? Again, speaking paces vary, so this is pretty individualized. A good rule of thumb: Most people speak at about 130 to 150 words per minute, with that top number being for the particularly energetic talkers. If you’ve got a much more measured style, you might be around 110 words per minute. If you’re giving a 10-minute speech, you’ll likely need about 1,300 words, but you could range from about 1,100 to 1,500 words. As with everything else, practice is key. Time yourself saying your speech multiple times and adjust as needed.
- Do I sound OK? It’s probably a universal truth that most of us cringe when hearing our own voices played back. Even famous actors and orators complain of this, and I don’t think I’ve ever helped an executive with a speech who didn’t worry about it. Bottom line: This is mostly an unnecessary fear. You sound fine, and people won’t obsess about the sound of your voice the way you do. Again, practice is key. Shoot for a delivery that has some vigor but doesn’t overreach into excited-teen energy. What’s most important is that you sound like yourself — the organizers asked you to give this speech for a reason — and feel comfortable.
- Where do I stand? I’ve worked with speakers who take great comfort in being behind a lectern. It gives them somewhere to put their hands, so they don’t flail them around unnecessarily, and it provides a kind of safety net or barrier between them and the audience. It also helps them to not obsess about their outfit, their stance and so on. Other speakers prefer to grab — or wear — the mike and address the audience without the encumbrance of a lectern. For them, this helps focus their nervous energy or capitalize on their enthusiasm. The only caution for this style is to be careful not to move around so much you make the audience dizzy, look like a tiger on the prowl or give the A/V techs a fit. Whichever style feels comfortable to you, make sure you talk with the organizers in advance to ensure the equipment is set up for your preference — and that your choice works with their vision for the event and their stage setup.
- To comfort, or not to comfort? Whether to use a comfort monitor or teleprompter is largely a personal choice, but be sure to check with the event organizers. Some may prefer that you do. And once you’ve figured out your approximate speaking pace, this is useful information to share with the A/V techs. This information can help them run your speech on the monitor at an appropriate speed. They’ll position the monitor in a location where you can easily read from it or refer to it while also making eye contact with the audience. Work with them to adjust the placement, in particular, if you’re above or below average height. On the other hand, some very experienced speakers prefer good old-fashioned paper printouts to monitors. Even some extremely seasoned performers like the comfort of their written words in their hands. Comedian Sarah Silverman, for instance, has said that even though she knows her material inside and out, having her index cards on stage gives her the freedom to ignore them.
- This is all great … but I’m nervous! You may not notice it, but even some of the top CEOs and the most confident extroverts get nervous before giving speeches. We’re told by high-level executives all the time that they have butterflies in their stomachs or didn’t sleep much the night before. For many people, it gets better each time; but even if it doesn’t, you can still deliver a speech that connects with the audience and hits your objectives. The No. 1 thing that helps with nerves is preparation: Research your audience. Practice your speech until you know it intimately. Another tip: Have a trusted colleague or friend positioned at a central point in the audience. Looking at them while you’re speaking allows you to appear to have eye contact with the audience while also getting the confidence boost from seeing a trusted face. Some speakers also like to have a lucky talisman or small item in their pocket. Touching it occasionally — or even just knowing it’s there — can bring relief. And others like to say a silent prayer or repeat a favorite mantra just before taking the stage.
- Yes, but … still nervous! Totally understandable. Controlling your breath can help a lot. Before going on stage, try taking deep breaths in through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. This can steady your breathing and slow down your pounding heart. Some people find a technique called square breathing helpful. So called because of the 4x4x4x4 rhythm that you can visualize as a square, this quick exercise can change your energy, calm your mind and help ease your stress. This breathwork pattern is even said to be used by the Navy SEALs. Do each of these steps for a slow count of four: Inhale through your nose, hold the breath, exhale through your mouth and rest with/hold the breath. Repeat until you’re feeling calm.
From fear to a great finish
You’re not alone in feeling a little shaky at the thought of giving a speech. There’s an oft-quoted statistic, perhaps apocryphal, that more people fear public speaking than death. Regardless, using these seven tips can help you work out the nuts-and-bolts of your speaking opportunity and ease your worries, too.