HOW TO REALLY GIVE A GREAT SPEECH

I do get asked quite often as to what it takes to do a really good speech, and though I am usually a bit flippant about this (see “How to give a great speech”), there are some rules that one should follow to at least try and set the stage for a successful outcome.

So, here are my main rules:

1. Preparation is everything and takes time and effort.
You should leave as little as possible to chance. It is important that for at least a month or more beforehand you carry a notebook (or PDA) with you to jot down random thoughts that come to you, no matter how remote, as you think about what you should be saying. Collect everything relevant even though you will probably discard at least 50% of it for the final draft.
Mark Twain said “It usually takes at least 3 weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech”.

Source: United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division; digital ID cwpbh.04761

2. Find some interesting and relevant quotes.
There are hundreds of quote internet sites that are available. Not only will these give you some interesting elements to embed in your speech, but will also jog some thought processes in areas that you may not have considered.
However, don’t overdo it. Two quotes are enough, maybe one at the start if it is a good punchy introduction to the topic, and an even better one for an inspirational gutsy finish. I once sat through a presentation from one of my sales managers where every one of his 50 Powerpoints was an inspirational quote from some famous person. After the first 10 or so it became tedious and meaningless, and I had to cut him short by starting a round of applause before everyone completely turned off.

3. Use Powerpoint as little as possible.
Too many people spend about 90% of their preparation on the Powerpoints and only about 10% of the time on the actual speech, in the false belief that the Powerponts will drive their words, and even worse belief that an audience likes to read-along with the speaker as he reads his own slides from the podium. These times allocated to preparation should actually be reversed, and if you do use Powerpoint then limit them to about 1 per 4-5 minutes of your speech, so a standard 45 minute presentation should not have more than about 10-12 slides. It is also critically important that you limit the number of words on each one, as you want them to imply an idea, rather than just being another version of your spoken words.

4. Keep it simple.
Many speakers believe that using complicated words and expressions will establish the fact that they are intelligent. The reality is that this just makes the audience think that they are pompous. Gordon Brown (an English past Prime Minister) in a speech once talked about “neoclassical growth theory and a symbiotic relationship between investment in people and infrastructure”, which while it may have had great meaning to him was meaningless drivel to most of the audience. He lasted less than 3 years as PM.

Source: White House webcast, via Wikimedia Commons

5. Don’t overuse statistics, and don’t fill your Powerpoints with Excel spread-sheets.
Some well-chosen figures can add credibility to your presentation, but they must be relevant, accurate, up to date and supportable. Most people do not believe nor trust statistics and believe that you can use statistics to prove anything, so when you say that “73% of all speakers use too much Powerpoint” you may be right, but most of your audience will actually not believe you, and hence will question your overall veracity.

6. Don’t write your whole speech down and then read it out as this will generally come across as being dry and lifeless, even if you use a teleprompter.
Better to know what you are going to say, and after practice, practice, practice write bullet points and prompts on some small cards that are easily carried and scanned if needed.
If you are going to tell a personal story, there is no need to write the whole thing down. “Tell them about breaking my leg” is more than enough to remind you. Practice the whole speech many times from beginning to end. This will not only make you familiar with what you want to say, but will also show you how long it will take.

7. Be yourself.
The best speakers do not take on a separate stage persona, but play themselves when they are on stage. It is always easier to be yourself than to pretend that you are someone else. If you are not comfortable moving around the stage, then move very little, though you should not just stand behind a podium. If you are not comfortable using your hands then don’t try and wave them about as it will not look natural. If you are not very good at telling jokes, then don’t try and do it, as there is a good chance that it won’t work, and there is nothing worse than a joke, which needs a punch line, having no punch.

8. Some quick tips:

  • Look at the audience directly not over them
  • Start and end strongly. That’s what they remember most.
  • Short sentences and phrases can be effective eg “We will win. There are no excuses.”
  • Repetition can be powerful. Martin Luther king said “I have a dream” 7 times.

Source: United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division; digital ID cph.3c26558

  • Remember that your audience is on your side and wants you to do well.
  • Don’t apologise ! Never start with anything like “I am not sure why I am here”.
  • Be enthusiastic about your topic. If you aren’t then your audience won’t be either.

9. Remember that it is meant to be fun for yourself as well as your audience.

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15 Responses to HOW TO REALLY GIVE A GREAT SPEECH

  1. Ramki says:

    Very useful, Les 🙂
    Thanks for both the posts. I enjoyed the less serious one too 🙂

    • leshayman says:

      Hi Ramki,
      Thanks for the kind words and feedback …
      I wrote the serious one first and then realised that I had a lot more “Dont do” comments than I had thought, so decided to do a serious one and a sarcastic one.
      Les

  2. Frank says:

    Good points Les, and consistent with my previous additions to make 10 commandments, I add a 10th to yours.
    #10, be flexible, if your audience isnt “with” you during your presentation, be flexilble enough to “change” and win them back over.
    rgds, Frank

    • leshayman says:

      Well put Frank.
      Many years ago, I did my first speech in Russia at a conference in Moscow when no matter what I said I could not get any feedback from the audience, until I ad-libbed in the story about my father and the 1000 roubles (which I wrote about early in my blog). They found it funny enough to decide that even though I was a “western imperial pig” I was OK, and then started to react to what I was saying. It was a good lesson.
      Les

  3. Enrico Negroni says:

    Chapeau !
    You are the Master !

    rgds, Enrico

  4. Dominic Wakefield says:

    Hi Les,

    Brilliant as usual – it is always useful to remind ourselves of the rules / guidelines for giving speeches. I like some of the suggestions – such as getting quotes – something I haven’t done in the past.

    I also always found useful the advice about thinking of the environment and the audience before giving a speech. i.e. Do you know the audience? Who are they? What do they want to hear about? A speech to a mother’s union will be different to the speech to that at a bachelors party – although the topic might be the same – making babies or maybe avoiding making babies!

    Regards
    Dominic

    • leshayman says:

      Hi Dom,
      You are 100% right … you really must build the whole speech and style to match the audience …
      though I have found that groups of women can be even more risque than a bunch of guys at a stag party. 🙂
      Les

  5. Mal Booth says:

    … and if all else fails, just do what the leader of the free world does everytime, read every word from a telepromtper as though you really mean it 🙂

    • leshayman says:

      yes Mal, I should have added one more rule which is that if all you are going to do is to speak in short sound bites you may as well just read them all …

  6. Colin Sampson says:

    Excellent Les…and coming from the Master himself at giving speeches!

  7. BenB says:

    Hi Les,

    I am not sure how you do that. But you always cover the topics that are relevant at a given point in time for ME.
    I have to give a presentation for 150 Swiss SAP customers next Thursday and was working on my powerpoints over the last weeks.
    Lets see how much of this I can apply. As I have to talk about a product my flexibility might be limited. But I will give your thoughts a try.

    Thanks.

    Ben

  8. leshayman says:

    Ben, good luck with the presentation, I hope it goes well. Let me know how you get on.
    Les

  9. Adriana says:

    Dear Mr. Hayman,

    Your article made me remember this 12 minutes presentation that I thought you might like: “Lessons from the Bamboo” by Garr Reynolds. He wrote “Presentation Zen”.

    Too bad we cannot see all the Power Points on You Tube.

    Enjoy!
    Adriana

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