How to Give a Speech That Matters

How to Give a Speech That Matters

On Saturday I gave my first ever keynote address at the Crayons to Computers fundraiser.  The theme of the event was “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” and that allowed us to compete gameshow style against a group of 5th graders.  I am happy to report that #TeamMelody tied the 5th graders, which means we are at least smart enough for the 5th grade.  I was truly relieved.

While the video crew is still compiling the live video footage, I figured I would share the audio version I recorded before the event for practice.  Have a listen should you wish.  I’ll make sure to post the video once I get a copy.

Once upon a time I would get nervous while giving speeches.  However, I have grown increasingly comfortable with practice.  I forced myself to.  Why, do you ask?  I quickly learned when I entered the job market that public speaking is a fear for many.  Since I was coming into the race from behind, I needed to own any competitive advantage I could find.  Being nervous of speaking in public made others pass on opportunities that I couldn’t afford to pass up on.  As such, now that my colleagues at work and friends in the community know that I am comfortable speaking publicly, I become shortlisted for great opportunities that have helped grow my career in turn.  The opportunity to provide my very first keynote to leaders of my own community was no exception.

Alas, I am here to report that, yes, you can overcome your fear of public speaking and give speeches that matter.  Here are my tips.

Create Your Foundation

Whenever I am called upon to speak, I think like a marketer.  As a marketer you are trained that you have a “target market” and you are trying to motivate your target market to do a certain action.  In my case that looked a little something like this:

  • Target Market: My target market were those in attendance at a fundraiser for Crayons to Computers. Trying to understand this target market a little bit more, I can make some assumptions about them.  I can assume they are from the Greater Cincinnati area.  I can assume they are either parents or that they care about education for some other reason.  I can assume that they have enough money to spend $75 per person to attend a fundraising event.  As such, these are likely individuals that do not know first hand what it means to not have something that many would consider to be so every day and regular  (like, say, school supplies).
  • Action I Need Them to Take: The big goal here is to free up money so that 130,000 children in the Greater Cincinnati area will have access to the school supplies they need for all of next year.  That’s a big goal, and maybe we will only meet a fraction of that.  However, I set my goals BIG under that whole “aim for the moon and if you miss you will still be among the stars” idea.
  • Motivating Factor: Essentially, my entire speech needs to focus on motivating those in attendance to donate their hard earned dollars to towards this cause.  In order to do so, I need to make an emotional appeal.

Oftentimes folks will immediately just start writing their speech.  I will explain, once we get to editing the speech, why setting this foundation is so important.

Picking a Theme

Take a minute and think of your favorite speeches.  You will notice something about them.  Each of these have a central theme that they follow throughout.  My favorite speech is “Citizenship in a Republic” by Theodore Roosevelt.  At the center of this speech you have the theme of the “man in the arena”.  The theme is so strong that the speech is more often known as “The Man in the Arena” than by its proper name.   Having this central theme gave President Roosevelt’s words direction and ensures he is not taking listeners down too many dead end roads.  

I always come up with my best themes while I am out running.  If you have read “If You Can Read This, Then You Can Learn Anything” then you know this is likely because while running my brain is in the “diffuse” mode where random bits of information are getting fused together creatively.  It’s also a time when my blood is flowing faster, and, as the case turns out, the central core of my brain is building new brain cells while I am exercising.  

For me it helped that the event already had a strong theme.  It also helped that I knew my motivating factor was to get folks with extra dollars to donate money towards children’s school supplies and that they, themselves, were unfamiliar with what not having school supplies felt like.  In keeping with the theme, I decided to take the 250+ attendees back to when I was in the 5th grade and describe what it was like to be homeless at the age of 10.  I had some true to life school supply stories to talk about as well to make the purpose for the event real.  This is why it is important to speak on topics you believe in.  You can only invite someone to take a personal journey when you yourself are familiar with that personal journey yourself and can show your audience around a bit.

Writing the Speech

Once I get to writing my speech, I start with an outline.  To be honest with you, I play with this outline in my head for a good number of days before I even put pen to paper.  Again, I mostly do this while I am out running.  I would do the same thing when I hosted a monthly creative writing group in my community.  It is only when I can make words or characters moving around in my head feel real to me that I can ever make them feel real to someone else.  

For my speech on Saturday, my very first outline looked exactly like this:

  • Introduction using my 5th Grade 50 State Report
  • Things I wish my teacher knew
  • Things I wish the audience knew

Then I started to put little bullet point notes under each of the main sections.  Those bullet points turned into sentences.  My speaking notes stayed in bullet point format all the way through to execution.  Resist the urge to write paragraphs.  I’ll explain why that is important when we talk about memorizing the speech. 

One note for those that are making a speech with the goal of creating an emotional appeal that motivates someone to do something, there is a reason that my speech has three parts.  Emotional pleas are best done in three parts like so:

  • Part 1: Start light. Those listening are getting a chance to know you.  If you jump right into the heavy stuff, then they won’t know whether they can trust you.  The response you are looking for from the audience during the first part are a few laughs.  A playful “awww” also fits here depending on what you are talking about.
  • Part 2: You would use the middle part of the speech to stir emotion.   In other words, you started your audience off on a high note, and now you are going to bring them down.  If your goal is to create some tears, then this is where you do it.
  • Part 3: Bring them back up.  You don’t want to leave your audience sad through to the end.  You want to leave them motivated to do the thing you wrote the speech for in the first place.  You want to leave them stirring to take an action.  This is the part of the speech that preachers and cheerleaders would be great at.  If your audience interrupts your speech with applause during the third part, then you are taking them on the journey you intended.  If they are crying at this point, then you want that crying to be happy tears.

Of course, not all speeches are meant to make emotional appeals.  Some are meant to be informative.  In those cases you must base your outline on the facts that you need for your audience to leave remembering.  You get extra points for finding creative ways to explore the topic.  For example, are you talking about how to make debits and credits in accounting?  Well, then, why not break out a Monopoly board and use the game as a prop as you explain the accounting equation?  As you role the dice and explain what is happening,  you can ask your audience to join in with their suspected answers on how to apply the game’s credits and debits as you go along.  

Editing Your Speech

Writing speeches, especially ones that include parts of your own story, can be quite therapeutic.  If writing a speech also helps you deal with some things, then that is an awesome side effect.  However, that does not mean that everything you write deserves to be in the speech.  You are not writing the speech for you.  When you are in editing mode you need to go back to your foundation and ask yourself (of every paragraph, sentence, and word) if what you wrote serves the original purpose you set out to achieve.  If it doesn’t, then, I don’t care how pretty the sentence is, it gets cut.  Your diary would be a great place for those sentences to live instead.

You also need to be careful when making claims and assertions.  This is especially true if you are making a claim about a person or a certain group of people.  You can’t say, “circus performers are an angry group of people” unless you first set the stage for the audience and then allow them to take a journey through your words that allows them to understand that circus performers are an angry group of people.  If you simply make the claim, then you will not only perhaps make circus performers angry (at you) but you will also have failed to support your own argument.  Your audience will know this and discount all of your words because of it.  If adding the required detail needed to explore your claims detours you too far away from the central purpose of the speech, then it wasn’t necessary to the speech.  Cut it and move on.

Your ultimate goal is to deliver a message to your target market that motivates them to do a certain action in as little time as possible.  The more concisely you can deliver your message, the better off you will be.  Cut anything and everything that is not necessary.  The best speakers aren’t the best writers.  They are the best editors.  

Deciding on Visuals

When you are first learning how to speak publicly, visuals can be helpful tools.  For example, you can use PowerPoint slides to help remind you of how your speech flows.  Visuals are downright necessary if you are giving your speech over video or webcast.  Be careful, though.  No one wants to sit there and watch someone read from a slide.  If you must, then I find it helpful to just have a single visual picture and maybe a word or two or three.  This provides a nice visual burst that keeps your audience interested and keeps you on track with your speaking notes.

Memorizing a Speech

During my speech for Crayons to Computers, I wanted to go the extra step of giving a speech without reading from notes.  I did so because my job was to tell my authentic truth in hopes that the 250+ attendees would donate to a worthy cause.  True connection is hard to achieve when you are looking down at notes.  It’s much more effective when you look at your audience the entire time and tell your story.  Also, your editing eye will come in handy here.  The more concisely you wrote your speech, the fewer words you have to remember now.

Here are the two best tips for memorizing your speech:

Write your speech out by hand with colorful markers.  When you are learning a new subject, writing your notes by hand is far more effective than typing them out on the computer.  Why?  The brain holds on to the words you print better than the words you type.  What I do is I type while I am writing and editing my speech.  Once I am done editing, then I write my speech out on paper.  I use the original bullet point list as described above.  I write each part of my speech in a different color.  If you listened to the speech above, then you will know that I do this because I have a strong memory for color, and I can read my notes in my head while I am speaking as a result.  

Record your speech in parts on our phone.  I practiced my speech out loud.  While doing so it was easy to just have my phone nearby and record myself as I went along using the voice memo app that came with the phone.  I not only recorded my speech one time all the way through (which is the version embedded above) but I also recorded each bullet point individually.  That allows me to remember each point in small portions.  This mental separation also helps me remember how the parts fit together.  As I am listening to recording 1.1 (the first bullet point in part 1) I ask myself if I can remember what I say in 1.2.  When I am listening to 3.3 (the third bullet point in part 3) I ask myself if I can remember what is said in 3.4.  This way, as I am giving the real speech I always have an association between what I am saying and what I will be saying next.

Delivering the Speech

Truly with all of the preparation you will have done, the hard part is over.  Now you simply just need to open your mouth and let the words fall out.  I will say that it is best to come out from behind the podium if there is one.  I stood to the side of the podium during my speech.  To that end, if a wireless mic is available, then go for that one.  I’ve said it many times before, and I will say it here now.  Your goal is to be human.  It is not natural to stay chained to one spot due to a mic stand or podium.  For more ideas, go to the TEDtalk website and view some of the mannerisms and tactics used by the best of the best.

Letting Go of Your Nerves

I’m ending this post where most people start: how to get rid of your nerves.  Trust me, this is actually the easy part.  Here are my three tips:

Prepare: I left this topic for last because my number one tip for letting go of nerves is to be prepared.  Most nerves come from a lack of confidence.  If you are confident with your material, then you will feel more in control of your delivery.  That will decrease your tension.  I also find that just the process of preparing helps work off the nervous energy in and of itself.

What People See Isn’t What You Think They See:  My favorite tip for public speaking nerves is something I learned when I was first learning to speak during a speaking elective I took my first year of college.  Only 10-20% of your nervousness is portrayed to your audience.  That’s it.  They are actually only seeing a very small part of it.  Once I knew that, then I felt even less nervous and, therefore, an even smaller part of my nervousness was portrayed to my audience.  Down and down the percentage fell until it didn’t exist at all.

Harness the Anxiety that People Do See: Not all anxiety is bad. Having some test anxiety, for example, motivates you to study.  Likewise, public speaking anxiety motivates you to prepare.  It will also bring more life to your speech.  Your pulse will increase, and your words will have more of a kick to them.  If, on the other hand, your anxiety manifests physical symptoms that you are aware of, then you can use that awareness to conceal your anxiety.  For some people, their chest or neck become flush red while nervous and speaking.  By wearing a top that covers through to the collar bone, they are able to conceal that symptom of nervous anxiety.

Perfection is for Weaklings:  Your goal when you speak is not perfection.  Your goal is to connect, and you can only connect if you are perceived as human.  Perfectionists are read as robotic on the stage.  It is hard to laugh at a joke that sounds too practiced.  Those that make a mistake here and there are read as authentic.  That actually works to your favor.  Once you see the live speech I made on Saturday you may notice that there is a small portion of the speech where I paused for a second.  I’d actually lost my next line.  I took a deep breath, I found my place, and I carried on.  I don’t think anyone even realized it.  If they did, then all they would have realized is that I am human and they would have connected with me that much more because of it.  If, instead, you allow your audience to connect with you as an imperfect human, then you just might get little notes like this following your speech like I did even if you do make a mistake:

“I had to let you know that I thought your speech was one of the most moving I have ever heard. What you have overcome in your life is amazing and you are an inspiration to all.”

Melody grew up in poverty, and she was homeless throughout most of her childhood. Even after the hard work of getting out of poverty was accomplished, she still lived in fear of the next bad thing that could happen. She knew that, without the security of a safety net, one misstep would mean certain disaster. It was not until this safety net was established that she truly felt liberated and free from the anxiety of living in poverty once again. She is now motivated to share this sense of freedom with all women.


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *