How to deliver the best speech of your life

I still remember the first time I had to really give a proper speech in class. It was Civics & Economics class. We were given the names of candidates for local elections in North Carolina. Our task was to research their platform, write a speech, and then deliver it in front of the class. In true high school fashion–it was terrible. My legs were shaking, my voice sounded like a bagpipe that was spooling up to hit its first dulcet note, and I was so scatterbrained that I’m certain I forgot most of what I meant to say.

Then, everything changed when I joined the debate and speech team. Needless to say, I got good–FAST. I began as a nobody on the tournament circuit. After some coaching and confidence-finding I was consistently in the top 6 orators in North Carolina–and qualified to the national tournament.

I’m not here to convince you that your child should start doing debate and speech as soon as possible–or that you should find your nearest Toastmasters chapter. All I’m here to do is pass on some of that knowledge so you, too, can take your audience on a verbal journey with you as their guide.

1) THE PAUSE IS YOUR FRIEND.

One of the easiest ways to identify new or uncomfortable orators is to take a look at the length of their pauses. From the speaker’s perspective, nothing is wrong. They paused, sure. And to them it seemed like a nice, long one. But in reality it lasted no time at all. The problem is that time onstage is warped. From the speaker’s point of view it’s accelerated so much that what seems like a second-long pause to the speaker lasted milliseconds. That’s not a pause, that’s just a breath.

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One of the best ways to draw audiences in and keep them hooked on your words is to use the pause to its full potential. Whenever you stop talking, let the silence sit. Mentally count out the seconds in Mississippis: One Mississippi. Breathe. Two Mississippi. Breathe. Begin talking again. Slow and steady wins the hearts of an audience. Once you master being comfortable enough with holding a pause, begin to vary the length and placement of them. The first step to being a great orator is to become a master of pauses.

To identify good places for pauses, sit down with a copy of your speech and a marker. Underline the spots to insert pauses between words or sentences. For example, in these next few sentences I’ve underlined the spots where I would normally pause: making sure that each pause–every stop in my speaking is purposeful and powerful. Sometimes it’ll be in front of a comma or a period, but not always. Speech doesn’t always play nicely with grammatical rules.

2) Slow down

This is related to the pauses. The second step, after mastering pausing, is to work on pacing. Speak too fast, and you run the risk of nobody being able to understand a thing you say. Too slow, and you begin to bore people. However, for the majority of the world, the big issue is speaking too quickly. Once again, between the nerves and anxiety that naturally occur when giving a speech, time warps. What, to you as the speaker, seems like a perfectly normal speed, to the audience seems like a word rocket just took off. It takes some effort. But focus on speaking slower. If it feels like you’re speaking too slowly, more often than not you’re actually speaking at the perfect speed.

3) Keep your gestures natural and purposeful

Imagine yourself as a car with a limited tank of gas. Every word, pause, step, and gesture uses up a certain amount of fuel. In those conditions, it only seems logical that you would want to only use gestures that actually help you drive your point home. That’s really all there is to it. As you speak, be aware of how you move your arms. DON’T be a windmill, with your arms flailing about aimlessly like a wavy arm guy. That’s bad.

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At the same time, you don’t want to be a plank of wood–with robotic, choppy gestures or no gestures at all.

Ideally, you want motions that flow into each other. Pointed, direct, but not militaristic. Keep your arms a little bent, your hands open. Move in slight circles, not straight into the gesture. It seems like lots to keep track of, but in reality you do this naturally when you talk to your best friend.

Nothing in the way you gesture should change. The only difference is that your best friend is made up of multiple people rather than one best friend.

 4) It’s all about that eye contact

Sorry, Megan Trainor. But it really is all about that eye contact. To make your speech as strong as possible, use those windows to the soul and harness their power for good.

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It really is just as simple as looking directly in the eyes of the audience. If you’re going to be speaking in front of a larger group of people, divide the room into sectors and look for a discernible pair of peepers in your target area. Then look at them in the eyes. This has two benefits:

  1. Eye contact is the only way to truly sell your message to the people you’re talking to. Avoiding their gaze will make you seem weak and shady. Meeting their gaze directly give off the message that your word should be trusted.
  2. Eye contact is a great source of feedback. Are you boring your audience? Are they captivated by your every word or playing on their phones? Eye contact lets you know and lets you adjust and adapt to keep everyone on you and what you have to say.

5) Your voice, like a healthy heartbeat, should have its ups and downs

There’s nothing worse than listening to a monotonous speaker. It’s beyond boring–it’s a crime against humanity, excruciatingly painful, demoralizing, and soporific.

Don’t subject people to that kind of mental anguish.

You need ENERGY!

The only way to do that is add some variety to the way you speak. Pauses and speed aside, change your volume. Get louder during buildups then get suddenly quieter. There’s a reason this works in movie trailers. It gets attention. I know you’re a colorful individual–you’re a firework. And if you want to let your colors burst you have to be willing to throw that variety in there!

 6) Taste your words

My friends always give me a look when I tell people this. But it’s been one of the most useful bits of advice I’ve heard in my life. Every word has a connotation and a denotation. For example, the word “awkward” is awkward to say. Simply enough.

What I mean by taste your words is that, whether you mean to or not, the meaning of the word is present in the way you say them.

Play it up.

When something is harmful. STRESS IT! Lower your voice to a growl and let your voice convey the harm. When something is good, do the same–play up the benefits and say the word with a light, airy tone.

You’d be amazed at the improvement this simple change can have on the impact of your words.

7) Stand upright and speak from the diaphragm

So you’re a bit soft-spoken. You have to shout to get your voice at a level where you can be heard from a distance.

Congrats on ruining your voice. Speaking from the throat like that (aka, yelling) hurts you in two ways:

  1. When you yell, your voice sounds higher-pitched (read: shrill). Don’t sound shrill. Don’t speak from your diaphragm.
  2. When you yell, you run the risk of losing your voice. Then what’ll you do? Use sign language?

The best way to sound louder and with a stronger, more resolute voice is to speak from your diaphragm. Put your hand just below your ribs. When you speak, you should feel your stomach rising and falling in cadence with your words.

Of course, all of this improvement won’t do anything if your posture is terrible. You have to make sure you’re standing up straight when you speak. Like with everything else, it both makes you seem more trustworthy and improves the quality of your voice, which ultimately dictates the power of your message.

I’ll let Effie take it from here

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8) Just keep swimming

You’re rocking, you’re rolling, and the audience is eating out of the palm of your hand. You feel like the bee’s knees. You forget a sentence.

You get flustered and panic.

You stop. It lasts longer than a pause. The silence keeps going and starts to get heavy.

It gets awkward.

In seconds, you went from owning the room to having the room looking at you in shock and awe as you start babbling and correcting yourself and sweating.

It’s an orator’s worst nightmare, but in reality is one of the easiest to solve. All it takes is advice from everybody’s favorite blue tang:

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Nobody else know what you were about to say. To them, the sentence you skipped might as well have never existed. If it was truly vital to your point, then add it in later on.

9) SMILE!

And frown. And look concerned. And elated. And jealous. Look in the mirror as you practice to see which one you naturally make, and make small corrections wherever things seem off to you.

Convey emotion using your facial expressions.

Period.

 10) Have you ever asked a rhetorical question?

Yeah…stop that.

Rhetorical questions are amateurish, invite the audience’s attention to stray, and are almost always done wrong.

We go back to pauses here. You, the orator ask a rhetorical question, assuming the audience will have a moment of quiet introspection before you begin speaking again. What ends up happening is that you ask a question, you wait HALF A SECOND, then answer the question.

Not only did your audience not have that time to properly introspect, but now you look like a complete fool for answering your own question.

It’s like etiquette when toasting: don’t drink when others are toasting you. NEVER answer your own rhetorical question. Better yet, NEVER ask one in the first place.

11) Be an un-swayable wall of confidence

Which is to say, stop swaying. Swaying is one of the oldest and most common nervous ticks in existence. Sadly, it’s also one of the most damaging to the reputation and perceived strength of a message.

To help reduce the amount of sway you’re guilty of, start by getting a wider stance. Ideally, you want you feet to be shoulder-width apart, with your weight centered between them. This creates a natural resting position, making it harder to start to swaying your hips.

The next step will take some self-restraint, but you’re going to have to actively remind yourself to stop idly swaying when you speak. It will take your mental power, but I know you can do it.

Hips don’t lie: if you sway, you will look nervous.

12) Let’s talk about hands

Take them out of your pockets when you speak. You’re an adult.

Act like one.

Now that we got that taken care of, we can move on to more pressing issues: resting position. Many people tend to rest their hands clasped together towards the base of their sternum.

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That’s a bad idea. It makes you look closed off, defensive. Sure, it’s easy to launch into a gesture from that position, and it offers mental shielding from the prying eyes of the audience. But that’s not the point. To convince people, you’ve got to remain open–almost exposed–at all times. The best place to rest your hands is down at your sides bringing them up to gesture and back down when not in use.

As a side note, keep your hands open. A gesturing with a fist will do wonders for ruining your credibility.

13) Nerves are a great thing

Nerves mean that you care. It means that you’re emotionally invested in what you’re about to say and want to genuinely convince everybody of your point.

You shouldn’t be looking to get rid of your nerves (because you’ll never get rid of them) but rather to use them to your advantage.

About ten minutes before you get up to speak, start breathing. Don’t breathe deeply, you’ll run out of breath. Just breathe consistently. Focus on breathing–nothing else. By the time you get up to speak, you will sound more confident, less nervous, and more energetic and passionate.

Ultimately, it’s passion that matters.

Feature image by Luis Llerena

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Erik says:

    An excellent post. I truly hope many people read it and take notes. Not only did you offer a treasure trove of tips, you did so in practical and fun ways. I particularly liked your cultural references and tie-ins. What I’m trying to say is, not only was the post informative, it was written especially well.

    I would add that all of the tips mentioned in the post become markedly easier when you have the choice to speak about something you truly believe, have experienced, live by, and about which you feel passionately. That’s not always a luxury one gets when speaking; but wherever possible, adapt your content — or find an angle that you CAN be passionate about. It really does make a huge difference both in your presentation style and in your connection with your audience. Following every “rule” while speaking about something that doesn’t really matter to you comes off as an oration, at best, rather than something people will remember and reflect upon.

    1. raulrgonza says:

      That’s very true! The more passion you have about your topic, the easier it is to actually come across as a great speaker.

      And it’s true that focusing on following the rules will make anyone come across as robotic. Which is why rules are meant to be broken! Of course, to break a rule it’s important to know what that rule is in the first place.

      1. Erik says:

        Well said (as was the entire post).

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