There’s nothing worse than staring at a blank screen and wondering how you’ll begin to write a speech. Oh wait, there is something worse: Staring at a blank screen and wondering how to start your speech—while your deadline is hanging over your head. Add some pressure to a confused mind and a dreaded task and, well, you’re likely to throw something together, throw up your hands, or throw in the towel.
But don’t get mad—get strategic. In my work coaching busy people (from powerful Hollywood movie moguls to nervous maids of honor) to make speeches, I have found that following these three simple steps can quickly take you from ideation to oration.
Step 1: Prepare
While it is deeply satisfying to start putting words on a page, it’s more important to spend a few minutes thinking about what you want this speech or presentation to accomplish. After all, as Yankee great Yogi Berra once remarked, “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.”
So, spend a few minutes reflecting on the following:
What kind of speech is this? Common types include informational (aimed at instructing or teaching), persuasive (targeted to change people’s beliefs and behaviors), and evocative (focused on generating an emotional response).
Who is your audience? What do they already know about this topic? What do they believe that may or may not be true? What do they want? What do they hope for? What do they fear?
What do you want your audience to feel? What do you want them to do? What one to three things do you want them to know (based on what they already know or believe, hope for, want or fear, and what you want them to understand) that will drive them to do the thing you want them to do? Stick to three main points wherever possible. Two sets up an “either-or,” where four tends to overwhelm.
What’s your overarching point of view on the topic?** A neutral speech is a boring speech!
Step 2: Organize
Studies about consumer psychology show that when you offer people too many choices and too much information, they tune out and ultimately buy nothing. As you are asking your audience to buy (or at least buy into) what you’re talking about, you want to keep your ideas as simple and streamlined as possible. Here’s a simple outline to follow that will keep you and your audience focused:
An Attention-Getting Introduction: Use a quotation, a story, a question, or a statistic—something to get the audience paying attention to you as quickly as possible. “Hello, good morning, and thank you for having me” does not count as a captivating opening. Remember, this is your one opportunity to let your listeners know that you’re worth listening to.
A Preview: Let your listeners know what’s coming by saying “Today, we’re going to cover…” That old saying “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them” is absolutely right. (For a bonus, tell your listeners what benefits they’ll get from your presentation. It will inspire them to pay attention!)
Points 1 Through 3: Make your case. These main points should be based on what you prepared earlier (what you want your audience to know or understand). To make your points resonate, include stories, statistics, examples from the news and popular culture, expert citations, and personal experiences. But don’t use all of these for each point. Pick one or two ways to bring each point to life and then move on.
A Recap: Tell them what you just told them. (Seriously—our memories are short and our attention spans even shorter.)
A Q&A: You might think that you should leave the questions until the end. Think again. When you leave the questions until the end, you let the audience decide the topic and tone you end on. You’ve worked too hard for that! Hold Q&A before you wrap up so that you can deal with anything that comes up from your audience and still plan to conclude on your own terms.
The Closer: It’s almost over—but not quite. The law of recency tells us that the audience will remember most what they heard last. Wrap up any loose items, draw a final inspiring conclusion that will compel people to think and act differently, and then close with a stirring statement that’s memorable. For extra credit, have your closing mirror your opening so that your speech feels like a complete package.
Step 3: Present With Passion
Maya Angelou once remarked, “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.” Let it be your mission not just to survive your speech, but to deliver it with some compassion, some humor, and some style.
Make eye contact to connect with your listeners, use your arms to generate energy, move around the room (OK, not too much), and have your voice and face come alive to show that you care about your topic and your audience.
Don’t just stand up there—do something. Shift your presentation from “Woe is me” to “Wow!” and from “I can’t believe I have to write a speech” to “I rocked it. Next!”
Photo of pen and paper courtesy of Shutterstock.