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A Few Quick Tips on How to Deliver a Speech

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If you’ve ever given a speech (including junior high English class), you’re already familiar with the standard advice. You’ll find tips and tricks on the following pages you probably didn’t know about.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the audience didn’t yawn, roll their eyes, or check their PDAs for messages while you were speaking? Wouldn’t it be nice if almost everyone was hanging on your every word and you could see dozens of people taking notes? Wouldn’t it be great if you could give a speech in front of hundreds of adoring fans?

It occurs frequently. But it always happens to the same speakers, while others get the PDA checkers all the time. Simple tips and tricks can mean the difference between success and failure.

Although I won’t go into the intricacies of speech formatting here, I have plenty of advice from years of coaching speakers – I’ll start by telling you five ways to entice your audience.

Your Audience Wants to Hear These Five Meta Messages

Based on field testing and the advice of Ed Wohlmuth, author of The Overnight Guide to Public Speaking (an excellent book that is no longer in print), here are the five messages you must convey to audience members to pique their interest in your speech.

1. I Won’t Waste Your Time

Within the first few seconds of your speech, you should inform the audience how long you will be speaking and what makes the topic so interesting. Make no promises you can’t keep. Here’s an illustration:

Wow, I have so much to tell you and only so much time. In the next 20 minutes, you’ll learn everything you need to know about hiring Generation Y employees, from the types of benefits and recognition they expect to how frequently their parents will call.

I would add that you should not begin with a quote. It immediately conveys the message that you have nothing original to say.

2. I know what you know, and I know more.

Inform them that you are aware of their level of expertise on the subject and that you intend to provide additional information. This is one instance where industry jargon is acceptable and preferable because it communicates to the audience that you are at least on their level. Here’s an illustration:

If your company is like most, HR is working overtime to keep new Gen Y hires knee-deep in incentives – and by “incentives,” I don’t just mean electronics and iPods, but also the soft rewards they want, such as days off and baseball tickets. How did I find out? For the past four years, my consulting firm has focused solely on advising companies like yours on Gen Y hires. 60 Minutes interviewed us last month for a segment on the subject.

3. Here’s My Main Point

You want the audience to pay attention while you make your main point. As a result, it’s a good idea to indicate what it is ahead of time. Begin your speech by saying something like this:

Hiring and retaining Generation Y employees is simple if you remember they need to feel special.

Then, later in your speech, everyone will pay attention when you say:

As I previously stated, the bottom line is that Gen Y employees must be made to feel special, and here’s how to do it.

4. This will be simple to understand.

Giving audience members a mental outline at the start keeps them on their toes. Consider adding phrases like these:

• You must promise six things to Generation Y employees before they consider working for you.
• You’re dealing with three generations of employees: Boomers, Gen Xers, and Gen Ys. I’ll tell you a little about each of the first two in terms of motivation before diving deep into Gen Ys.
• There are four things you thought you knew about Generation Y employees that are entirely incorrect.

5. Pay Attention – I’m Nearly Done

According to research, people pay attention when they believe the speech is about to end. So it’s a good idea to let the audience know when you’re almost done and then wrap it up in five minutes or less. The worst thing you can do is say you’re almost done and then go on for another 20 minutes. Say something along the lines of:

Thank you so much for coming; you were an excellent audience. Now that you know how to hire and retain new Generation Y employees let me give you one more piece of advice.

Putting Everything Together

a sample opening

Wow – I have a lot to tell you but only so much time. In the next 20 minutes, you’ll learn everything you need to know about hiring Generation Y employees, from the types of benefits and recognition they expect to how frequently their parents will call.

If your company is like most, HR is working overtime to keep new Gen Y hires knee-deep in incentives – and by “incentives,” I don’t just mean electronics and iPods, but also the soft rewards they want, such as days off and baseball tickets. How did I find out? For the past four years, my consulting firm has focused solely on advising companies like yours on Gen Y hires. 60 Minutes interviewed us last month for a segment on the subject.

Hiring and retaining Generation Y employees is simple if you remember they need to feel special. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first, let me tell you four things you thought you knew about Generation Y employees that are entirely false…

Somewhere in the center
As I previously stated, the bottom line is that Gen Y employees need to feel special, and here’s how to make them feel that way…

Near the end
Thank you so much for coming; you were an excellent audience. Now that you know how to hire and retain new Generation Y employees, let me give you one more piece of advice…

It’s all very straightforward.

Before, during, and immediately following the speech

Wear something that draws attention to your face. This means no bright colors, busy prints, large designer logos, and (please) no cleavage. Wear nothing with metal buttons that will clack against the lectern or podium while you speak. Long metal necklaces are the same way.

If you’re giving an after-dinner speech, make sure the wait staff isn’t clearing dishes while you’re speaking; it’s very distracting.

The podium should be as close to the audience as possible, and the microphone (if available) should be aimed directly at your chin. Please take note of the speaker’s height and decide whether to adjust the microphone height when it’s your turn.

Take a few seconds to survey the room, smile, and do whatever else is necessary to engage the audience before you begin speaking. Simply looking at the audience without saying it is an excellent way to keep everyone quiet. Then stand up straight, evenly distribute your weight on both feet, and begin speaking.

Make sure you have a handkerchief on hand. Nervousness tends to make noses run, and bright lights make eyes water. Tissues should not be used because there is no good way for a speaker to handle a used one. Whether you leave it on the podium or put it in your pocket is disgusting. When finished, fold the handkerchief in half and place it in your bag.

When you’ve finished speaking, linger at the podium for a few seconds, so it doesn’t appear you’re rushing to finish.

So, where do you go to look?

Don’t sweep your gaze over audience members or look over their heads. If you do, it will appear as if you followed a formula learned at Toastmasters the one time you went back in the 1980s.

Instead, look at an audience member every time you make a point, and keep your gaze fixed on that person for the duration of the issue (probably 30 seconds or less). It doesn’t have to be a different member each time; make sure you’re not staring at the same person the entire time.

Also, don’t look at anyone while pausing between points – it makes people uncomfortable. Instead, examine your papers or visuals.

Finally, avoid turning your back on the audience. This cannot be easy if you need to work with visuals during your speech.

Coping with Panic

Limit or burn off nervous energy in advance. The standard recommendation is to sleep a whole night before giving a speech. Experience has taught us that less is more – nothing builds a storehouse of energy like sleep. You’ll feel more relaxed if you’re a bit sleep deprived. Consider going for a long run, walking, or hitting the gym. Another great way to burn off energy before a speech is to do something that makes you nervous – take care of a difficult situation, have lunch with someone who makes you nervous, do some cold-calling, etc.

The simple trick for dealing with panic is to make direct eye contact with audience members. The disorienting feeling of speaking to a large group without any verbal feedback is the number one cause of nervousness in my experience. So, another way to reduce anxiety is to solicit feedback. Start with a question and a brief discussion. Prepare a few questions in case you become nervous.

Consider doing anything that will divert attention away from yourself. If you feel nervous, ask someone to pass out the handouts you planned to distribute after the speech. This is generally a no-no because you don’t want the audience to lose focus on you – but if it helps, go ahead and do it.

Finally, plan a semi-graceful exit if you can’t finish the speech. It’s common to see guests on talk shows do it. I’ve been fighting the flu and need to leave – thank you for your patience, etc. You won’t find this advice in any speech book, and the chances are slim that you’ll ever need it, but knowing that a comet won’t destroy the Earth if you leave early relieves some of the pressure.

Remember that the audience wants you to succeed because we all know how difficult it is to give a speech. Consider this: astronaut Gulon Bluford Jr. was giving a graduation speech at Jefferson University in Philadelphia a few years ago. He collapsed in front of 2,200 people after about 20 minutes. After a few minutes, he returned to the podium and finished his speech to a standing ovation from the audience (wouldn’t you?).

Jerry Seinfeld once observed that because the number one universal fear is giving a speech and the number two fear is death, most people would prefer to be in the casket rather than giving the eulogy – this puts everything into perspective.

Last but not least…

• Never tell the audience you’re nervous; instead, acknowledge anything out of place or evident, so the audience doesn’t focus on it. I’m sure you’ve noticed the cast on my arm – I wish I could say it happened while I was skiing, but it happened while I was putting up Christmas lights on the house.
• If you make a minor error during your speech, let it go; if it’s a major one, restate it correctly.
• If you’ve never given a speech before, practice speaking to yourself in front of a mirror for five minutes daily. As I previously stated, one thing that scares people the most about giving a speech is the feeling of disorientation when they speak but are not spoken to in return. The mirror practice allows you to become accustomed to that sensation.
• If you don’t cling to the podium and consciously lift your hands, your arms, and hands will move naturally as you speak. Having a platform allows for more flair. Consider the drama when the speaker steps away from the podium for a few seconds. Standing next to the venue is also very effective.
• The real key to engaging all audience members is to break the illusion of separation between you and them – you want to have a deep, powerful presence while appearing relaxed – this seems simple enough.

Jean Van Rensselaer is the owner of Smart PR Communications. This Chicago-based firm specializes in public relations and communications strategy, creation, and implementation for small and mid-sized technical businesses. Jean@SmartPRCommunications.com or 630-363-8081 are her contact information. Go to her website.

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