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Special Delivery: Making a Formal Speech

Delivering a formal speech is usually a high-stakes proposition. Just remembering what you’re going to say involves a choice. Do you write out your remarks and read them word for word, use notes or memorize what you’d like to say?

One of the biggest mistakes speakers make is reading from a page written for the eye instead of the ear. We’ve all heard these presentations. They almost always lack enthusiasm in delivery and tend to be boring. That’s when the snoring begins.

A good script is extremely difficult to produce if you’re not a pro. Even someone who is a great writer may lack the ability to write a compelling speech. Speechwriting is an art that few people do well. I hate to say it, but many people who call themselves speechwriters are not very good. Because not only does the speech have to be written for the ear, but also for the speaker. A speech must reflect the personality and beliefs of the speaker and we all have different styles of communicating. Finally, as in any presentation, a speech must address the needs of the audience.

Imagine you have a great speechwriter (could be you!) who has written a fantastic speech that is on-target with your intended audience. How do you log a great performance?

1. Reading – Type your speech in at least 18-point size, triple-spaced. This makes it easier to see from a distance of about two feet, which is typical of the distance from your eyes to the top of a podium.

2. Phrasing – for good phrasing end a typewritten line at the end of a phrase or sentence. Determine phrases by reading the speech aloud and noting where there is a comma or semi-colon, or where you logically pause. This gives you some time to scan down to the next line. A third procedure is to mark your script for emphasis and pausing. Underline, use bold and italic or slash marks. Use what works for you to signal yourself where to pause or place emphasis.

3. Practice Practice Practice! There is no substitute for saying your speech out loud many times. This is your opportunity to try new things and perhaps most importantly, become familiar with the direction. This familiarity and comfort will allow you to look up often, making eye contact with your audience.

Here’s a list of general pointers:

Notes – What if you can’t come up with that great, written speech? Well, there is always the old standby – notes. Notes work great in any setting; they allow you to be more conversational, to look up more and to sound more natural. (Assuming you can resist the temptation to go off on tangents). I personally favor them. Even in a formal setting, notes are a good choice. If you are not a seasoned public speaker though they do require lots of out loud practice.

Timing – Part of practicing your speech out loud, whether with notes or a written script, is to time yourself so that you know your speech takes its allotted time, and no more.

The Podium – The podium puts a barrier between you and your audience so you’ll have to work even harder at your nonverbal communication: especially your eye contact, hands and (upper) body language. Don’t get caught grabbing onto the podium for dear life. It’s a real hazard. Keep in mind that podiums and lecterns are designed to accommodate people who are 6 feet tall. If you must use one and you are shorter in stature, ask for a platform that will raise you up several inches. Many of the modern podiums come with one that can be pulled out.

Many people ask me if it’s OK to get out from behind the podium. The answer is, it depends. If you are the featured speaker, then the choice is within your control. If, however, you are one of a list of featured speakers, and the speakers who precede you are hosting the event or other major players who could influence whether you are asked back, the answer may be to use the podium so as not to show them up – this time! These considerations can vary greatly.

Whatever your choice, seize opportunities whenever you can. Speaking is on-the-job training. Becoming a powerful speaker, holding the attention of a rapt audience, is within your grasp.

Copyright 2000 Ruth Sherman. All Rights Reserved.

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