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Mariah Burton Nelson
you've got to care about your subject and care about the audience
Clarify the expectations. Who asked you to speak? What does that
person expect? Ask direct questions beforehand, such as, "What do you
hope I'll talk about? What problems or concerns might I address?"
Speak from the heart -- and the head. Choose a topic that you a)
care about and b) know about. If you can't establish expertise, they won't
believe you. If you don't care about the topic, they won't care either.
Plan before you speak. Practice the speech, using an outline, to
get a sense of timing and phrasing - and to help you feel prepared, which
will do wonders for stage fright. Take the outline to the platform with you,
if you want (I do this as a security blanket, even when I don't need it) but
do not memorize or read the speech word for word. People want you to relate
to them, not read or recite from memory.
Dress appropriately. Wear an outfit that is slightly nicer than
what you expect the audience to be wearing; you're the guest of honor. But
keep it simple; don't distract them with sequins or swooping scarves or
Be prompt. When giving a speech, "arrive early and
stay late" is a good motto. (I learned that from professional speaker
Lynne Waymon.) By arriving early, you'll have a chance to check out the
microphone, seating, lighting, heating, and stage before the audience
enters, and deal with any problems (there usually are some). By staying
late, you'll make yourself available to audience members who want to talk
with you afterward.
Be gracious and friendly. Greet at least some of the audience
members when they walk in the door, as if you're hosting a party. Shake
hands. Make them feel welcome. Not only do audience members appreciate it
("Oh, you're the speaker! Wow!"), it can make you feel more
Take the time to get to know your audience. Some of this can
happen in advance, by asking the meeting planner about the attendees. You
can also interview audience members informally when socializing before the
speech, and you can poll them once you take the platform. ("How many of
you have been to Alaska?") Don't ask obvious questions ("How many
of you would like to be successful?"); use your questions to learn
relevant information about them, and listen to the answers. Later, you can
refer back to this information: "As all of you
zookeepers/swimmers/Madonna fans know..."). They'll feel listened to
Put them at ease, literally. Straight rows of chairs are deadly.
When an audience member has to turn her head to see the speaker, she'll feel
neck strain and eventually even get angry. Request curved seating ahead of
time, but move chairs yourself if you must. Or, if that won't work, ask
audience members to stand and move their chairs themselves. Tell them you
want them to be comfortable. They'll appreciate it.
Communicate clearly. Choose one main point. Professional speaker
Vanna Novak calls this a "key overriding message." Have you
noticed how many speeches lack this essential structural umbrella -- and
leave listeners feeling lost and frustrated? No matter how much time is
allotted, there will not be enough time to share all your ideas, insights,
wisdom, experience, and humor, so you have to decide: What, exactly, do you
want people to remember? Share your key overriding message at the beginning,
middle, and end of the speech.
Be organized. Choose 3 to 5 minor points that support your key
overriding message. Avoid the temptation to make this a list of 12 or 17.
People can't remember everything you say, and will appreciate you for
limiting your speech to three to five main points, each one illustrated with
stories, facts, humor, and audience involvement.
Speak intentionally. Speak a little more slowly than you normally
do. Emphasize certain words. Pause when appropriate. A conversational tone
is good, but vocal variety -- volume, pacing -- is also good.
Gesture naturally. Or, if it's a big room, gesture a little
bigger than you naturally would.
Be original. Do not tell jokes from joke books or the internet.
Do not use other speakers' material. The audience wants to develop a
relationship with YOU: based on your unique experience, insight, wisdom.
Involve the audience. Refer to a few audience members by name. Or
invite someone up on stage to demonstrate a point. (During my speeches about
goal-setting and success, I ask someone to come on stage and share a recent
victory.) Ask them their opinion. Find simple, non-threatening ways to get
them to get them involved. Ask them to think, imagine, remember, raise their
hands, look at each other, or take notes. The more involved they are, the
more likely they are to enjoy your presentation -- and feel connected to
Make eye contact. Maintain eye contact with one person for a
whole sentence at a time, before moving on.
Get personal. Tell relevant personal stories that illustrate your
message -- and reveal something of your humanity. As in any relationship,
self-disclosure will build trust.
Get close. Walk out from behind the lectern. This one action will
make a tremendous impression, since it will bring you physically closer,
dispense with the lectern "shield," and differentiate you from
most speakers. Retreating to the lectern periodically to look at notes is
fine, but you'll notice a remarkable increase in the audience's interest
level the moment you leave the lectern behind. Walk all the way into the
audience if you want, but don't stay there long, since you don't want to
lose eye contact with the people in the first rows.
Be lighthearted. Even if you're not spontaneously witty, you can
add humor to a speech by planning ahead to share stories (relevant,
inoffensive ones) that you've practiced on friends. Humor will relax the
audience and make you popular; everyone loves to laugh. Deliver the punch
line deliberately, to one person who has laughed before or seems ready to
laugh. Since laughter is contagious, their laughter will encourage others to
do the same. If no one laughs, don't worry about it; just move on.
Send thank-you notes. When you speak, you're not only creating a
relationship with your audience, you're creating a relationship with the
person who invited you to speak. Sending a thank-you note will be
appreciated -- and will increase your chances of being invited back.
Learn from the experience. Like any relationship, a
relationship with an audience can teach you a lot about yourself: your
strengths, weaknesses, hopes, dreams. Did the experience challenge and
excite you? That's a good sign; you might want to attend meetings of your
local chapter of the National Speakers Association (Nsaspeaker.org) to learn
more. Did you make mistakes? Fine. Perfection is impossible. Take a few
notes on the process afterward, continue to practice your people/speaking
skills, and you'll create increasingly rewarding relationships with your
audiences over time.