What is it about a great speech that makes it so memorable? What is it about a good speaker than can make you laugh—or bring you to tears? What is it that can draw you in so deeply that you lose track of the time passing?
Since ancient times, mankind has mulled over these questions, and many have strived to attain the power and skill of the orator. The most effective speakers have the ability to engage and move their audience, for whatever purpose. Some have become masters of speech, and some of their speeches are familiar to us today.
“I have a dream . . .” –Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963
“Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” –John F. Kennedy, 1961.
“I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!” –Patrick Henry, 1775.
“Four score and seven years ago” –Abraham Lincoln, 1863
And these excerpts are only from a handful of speeches in American history—what other jewels exist in the speeches of other histories, as well as drama and film!
The key to a great speech is the combination of Content and Delivery. Thus, even a short speech, with the proper content and effective delivery can be powerful. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, for example, lasted only 3 minutes and is only 272 words long, yet many have argued that it is the greatest speech in the history of America.
Many people experience anxiety about public speaking and avoid giving speeches whenever possible. But high schools are incorporating mandatory speeches in their curriculums, and many jobs require some level of public speaking and presentation, thus necessitating the development of public speaking skills. Nervousness is normal, but it should not be allowed to control you.
Know your material. Pick a topic you are interested in. Know more about it than you include in your speech. Use humor, personal stories and conversational language – that way you won’t easily forget what to say.
Practice. Practice. Practice! Rehearse out loud with all equipment you plan on using. Revise as necessary. Work to control filler words; Practice, pause and breathe. Practice with a timer and allow time for the unexpected.
Know the audience. Greet some of the audience members as they arrive. It’s easier to speak to a group of friends than to strangers.
Know the room. Arrive early, walk around the speaking area and practice using the microphone and any visual aids.
Relax. Begin by addressing the audience. It buys you time and calms your nerves. Pause, smile and count to three before saying anything. (“One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand.” Pause. Begin.) Transform nervous energy into enthusiasm.
Visualize yourself giving your speech. Imagine yourself speaking, your voice loud, clear and confident. Visualize the audience clapping – it will boost your confidence.
Realize that people want you to succeed. Audiences want you to be interesting, stimulating, informative and entertaining. They’re rooting for you.
Don’t apologize for any nervousness or problem – the audience probably never noticed it.
Concentrate on the message – not the medium. Focus your attention away from your own anxieties and concentrate on your message and your audience.
Gain experience. Mainly, your speech should represent you — as an authority and as a person. Experience builds confidence, which is the key to effective speaking.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
What interest do you have in public speaking? Is it something you must do for work or school? Do you enjoy public speaking, or does it make you anxious? Why?
What are your previous experiences with public speaking? Were they positive or negative experiences? What have you learned from past speeches?
Think of a powerful speech or speaker (from real life, history, or film). What made the speaker so effective and his/her message so powerful? What can you learn from his/her example and apply?
Public speaking is something that many of us simply cannot avoid. There is power in the ability to effectively communicate with other people. Like so many other skills, public speaking takes practice in order to improve. It can help to seek feedback from a practice partner or a friend.