Giving a Speech
However many presentations you have given as part of your job, nothing quite prepares you for the moment when you are required to make a speech. This might happen if your friend has asked you to be his best man, or you are getting married, or your son or daughter is getting married.
You may have been asked to give an after-dinner speech at a formal function or, less happily, to give the eulogy at a funeral. You may also have to give speeches if you are taking up politics.
Fortunately, although there are differences from presentations, there are also a number of similarities. This page provides some tips about giving a speech.
The Difference Between a Speech and a Presentation
Some people use the terms ‘speech’ and ‘presentation’ interchangeably. However, for the purposes of this page, a speech is assumed to consist of speaking only. There is little or no interaction, and no slides or other visual aids.
Preparing for your speech
As with a presentation, so with a speech: prior preparation and planning prevents poor performance.
Having to give a speech for a wedding is not something that is exactly sprung on you at the last minute. You usually have plenty of time to prepare, and it's a good idea to use it. The reason that so many presenters use visual aids is because just speaking to people is a very inefficient means of communicating. It’s using only one of your audience’s five senses. So when you’re giving a speech, you need to grab their attention quickly, and then keep it.
One of the best ways to do this is to use stories.
Your preparation time should therefore be used in two ways:
- To work out the central message of your speech, which should be simple and straightforward; and
- To gather four or five stories that illustrate this through talking to others, or reading and researching for yourself.
Suppose you are giving the best man’s speech at your friend’s wedding. The central message of your speech is fundamentally what a good bloke your friend is, and how wonderful it is that he is marrying his bride (not all the embarrassing things that he has ever done). You then need to choose two or three good stories that illustrate this and, as a bonus, will amuse the assembled group.
For a eulogy, it’s the same idea. Talk to friends and family and find two or three stories that really illustrate the life and/or values of the person you are eulogising. It is a tribute, not their life story.
Writing your Speech
Once you have gathered your material, the next step is to put it together.
Speeches need to be carefully structured. They must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning needs to grab your audience, the middle needs to hold on to them, and the end needs to finish off nicely.
You may find it helpful to have a ‘hook’ to hang the whole speech on. Ideas for wedding speech ‘hooks’ include events on that day in history, which may give you a starting point, or perhaps the initials of the bride or groom might lead you to expand on other things with that same initial that remind you of them?
Keep it simple. Three main points or stories are enough. You want to focus on the essentials, and get your message across.
You also do not want to offend anyone.
This brings us to the second important issue. As with presentations, it is important to know your audience.
The rugby club might be amused at the story where your friend took all his clothes off and was caught naked in a fountain by the police in a compromising position with a statue. The bride’s mother may not find it quite so funny.
If in doubt, leave it out.
If you're not easily offended then watch John Cleese read his eulogy to Graham Chapman.
Close your speech clearly. At weddings it’s easy: a toast to the bride and groom, or to the bridesmaids, will do nicely. But it’s an important point for other speeches too.
Experienced raconteurs may feel comfortable with sketchy notes.
If this is your first speech, however, you’ll probably want to write it out in full. Try, if you can, not to read it word-for-word, though, as it will sound a bit stilted.
As a rule of thumb, aim for a speech that is about five to seven minutes, and certainly no more than ten.
Practising your Speech in Advance
You may feel uncomfortable doing so, but it is helpful to practise by reading your speech out loud, preferably to a small audience you can trust.
When doing so, look out for:
- Moments when your audience glazes over, gets a bit bored, or starts to shift in their seats; and
- Bits of the speech that are awkward to say, either because of the content, or because of the words that you are using.
Consider amending these bits, deleting the first, and revising the second until you are comfortable with all the words you are using, and the ideas that you are expressing. This is especially important at funerals, because you do not want to become over-emotional.
Giving your Speech: On the Day
There is one really important rule here: be yourself. That’s why it’s important to practise in advance so that you are relaxed and comfortable with what you are saying. Don’t forget to make eye contact and smile, just as you would in a presentation.
If you’re a bit nervous beforehand, concentrate on keeping your breathing steady, and think of the adrenalin as something that will help you perform. For more about this, see our page on Coping with Presentation Nerves.
Remember to speak slowly and clearly.
You are unlikely to have a microphone for speeches at weddings and funerals at least, so you will need to concentrate on projecting your voice across the room. Speaking slowly will help you with that.
Also be prepared to adapt your speech a bit as you go. For example, if your early jokes fall a bit flat, be prepared to skim over any others lightly or miss them out. If you sense that you are losing your audience, or that you are taking longer than you expected, cut out a story or two.
After all, while nobody ever complained that a speech was too short, history is littered with complaints about over-long ones!
Remember, when you’re giving a speech, the audience is (usually) on your side (the exception might be in politics). As a general rule, they want you to succeed, to amuse them, and to make everyone smile.
But there is one very useful rule of thumb to bear in mind:
Stand up, speak up, shut up, sit down.
Abide by that and you will find your speeches are likely to be much more successful.