by Robin Spano
- Like your topic. This is true for all writing, optimally, but when you’re going to say it out loud, passion for your subject will carry you a long way toward a strong presentation. If you’ve been assigned a topic you find dry, find a way to make it interesting, at least to you. If you’re bored, your audience is more bored.
- Sketch an outline. Get the basics down on paper (or on screen).
- Start mulling. I find the ideal length of time to work on a speech is a week or two. (This is also true for short pieces of writing, like newspaper articles or blog entries—though this blog entry is getting a rush job because I’ve been away from the blog for so long!) When you know your topic ahead of time, ideas will start popping into your head—a funny Lindsay Lohan reference to keep the speech engaging; a not-so-dirty joke you can slip in; questions you have that your audience might like answered. Jot these down, follow them up, and incorporate them into your speech outline.
- Research. It doesn’t matter what you’re speaking about—from corporate finance to your grandmother’s pet poodle—for five minutes, or ten, you’re the expert. Give the audience some meat, some new piece of knowledge they can take away. Statistics are great—they lend credibility and illustrate your point more quickly sometimes than words can. They say a picture is worth a thousand words; I think statistics are, too.
- Know your audience. It’s no good telling that Lindsay Lohan joke if you’re speaking to a group of Nigerian seniors. Go through your outline thinking about how to deliver your message so your target group will hear you. Maybe change the jokes, find a relevant quote from a hero of their community. Are they starting with the same knowledge base as you, or should you spend the first minute of your speech briefly catching them up?
- Challenge yourself. Pretend you’re a skeptical teenager at the back of the room when you’re speaking. He wants to be bored, find flaws, and ask questions that challenge your authority on the topic. You don’t have to address all of his irritating outbursts, but be ready. Don’t let him be bored. And if some of his questions sound good, maybe research them and add them to your speech.
- Practice. Stand up and start talking to yourself. You’ll hear words that sound weird, and you’ll find gaps that need filling. You’ll find irrelevant material that can be cut; you’ll switch the order of things around. You’ll figure out what props you can add to give the speech visual impact. Time yourself—most speeches have minimum and maximum guidelines. You’ll get comfortable saying it out loud, and—a huge advantage—you’ll start to memorize what you want to say.
- Prepare speech notes. As you’re practicing, figure out what keywords you’ll want on paper at the live event. If you absolutely need to, you can bring the speech in written form. My own speeches are terrible if I’m reading, but it gets the job done, especially when I don’t have a lot of prep time. In a perfect world, I bring bullet points—three or four talking points that will jog my memory if I forget what my next point or topic is. But this is all trial and error—we all have unique speaking styles, and you’ll figure out what works for you after trying a few different ways.
- Make that speech. Do it. Deliver it. Smile if you can.
- Learn from your performance. No speech is perfect. That’s my favorite lesson of all from Toastmasters—it’s not about making that one killer presentation; it’s about refining and honing and getting better over time. Take any feedback you’re given, plus your own sense of what you did well and didn’t, and figure out how to improve your skills going forward.