Most of us get nervous about making a speech. It’s perfectly normal. In fact if you didn’t get a bit nervous, you probably wouldn’t do such a good job. A little stress and adrenaline makes for a crisper performance – ask any theatre actor if you want confirmation of that.
When we have to make speeches or presentations for business, it seems easier. That’s because we usually have our professional “persona” to hide behind, as well as a significant amount of business information to get over. That tends to take up our allotted time so it’s largely a case of making the information concerned as interesting as possible.
However even in the business world we often find ourselves on the borderline between a business and social speech. For example, after dinner or lunch at a conference … as a closer/housekeeping section at a company convention … at a prize giving ceremony … etc.
And what about those social occasions when we’re not required to share information at all – just get up there and talk? That can be a tough one – or at least it can appear to be. But it doesn’t have to be that way, if you prepare properly. Here are my suggestions.
Do some serious research
Visualize who the people in your audience will be, and understand not only who they are, but also in what state they’re likely to be. Will they be sober, or will they have had a couple of glasses of wine with their meal? Will they have been sitting there for some time and need to go to the washroom? Will they be wanting to rush off to beat the traffic, or to get home in time to say goodnight to their kids?
Adjust your speaking time to fit in with the answers to the questions above (see below for more on how to time your speech.) There’s nothing worse than a speech that goes on for ages when the last “comfort break” has been several hours earlier. An audience who have had a few drinks will not want to concentrate on anything much more that amusing, light-hearted banter. And so-on.
In the light of all that, first of all define what you NEED to say, and give that priority in your mind. This is where you note down the people who must be thanked, acknowledged, and otherwise referred to.
Then do a bit of lateral thinking
Then think what you can use from your knowledge of your audience to make some relevant remarks about the event concerned, the circumstances surrounding it, and your feelings about it. If the event is about specific people (e.g. a wedding) then talk about them and your relationship with them.
Whatever you do, do NOT attempt to be funny unless you are 100 percent comfortable with it. There is nothing more embarrassing than someone attempting to make jokes without feeling them from within, and without connecting with the audience.
Use language and tone of voice that the audience will understand and identify with – and blend that in with your own natural style of speaking. Whatever you do, don’t try to be someone you aren’t. Build on who you really are (see below.)
Learn a few basic presentation techniques
When assembling material for your speech, write yourself a list of points – a structure. Try if you can to keep the main issues to fewer than five, no matter how long your speech is. If you can’t actually put it together as a traditional story, what you must do is ensure that one topic leads logically on to the next using some good, workable links.
If you need to make an obvious change of direction, you can do it – but you need to know how to use your stage body language as well as that other wonderful presenter’s tool, silence. Nothing gets an audience’s attention faster than a few seconds of total silence when they’re expecting a stream of words.
Whether you use a bit of silence or not you need a short, effective link. Links are actually quite useful even if they are a little abrupt, because they act as punctuation to your material. They also tell the audience that we’re now moving on to something new. Your links can be as simple as a few words, or up to a few sentences, but no longer or they cease to be links and become mini-topics.
How to start and finish
Many people will tell you that a really good opening and close of a speech are terribly important and in fact as long as those are good you can say pretty well what you like in between. I don’t necessarily agree. Sometimes simple, unpretentious and honest openers and closes are far easier – and more effective.
The opener and closer don’t have to be earth-shattering, but they do have to be part of you. If you’re naturally a quiet, private sort of person there’s no way you should struggle with a passionate, emotive ending to your speech, even if others think you should be able to carry it off. If a few, self-effacing words of “thanks for listening” are all you think you will feel comfortable with at the end of your speech then that’s the best choice, because you’re less likely to get it wrong.
What you say, in detail
Once you have created a structure and decided how best to open and close your speech, the best way to ensure it sounds natural is to switch on an audio recorder, talk through the structure to yourself, and transcribe the recording. (It’s a terrible job, but worth it.)
Now, edit that transcript and tidy it up a bit, but don’t take out the commas and the periods. Long sentences in speeches can leave you gasping for breath and losing the plot. And don’t add in anything you wouldn’t say in real life. If it sounds right, it is right, and if it sounds wrong it is wrong even though it may look right on paper or screen.
How a script can help
Some people don’t bother to write their speeches out in full, especially if they’re social speeches which are normally informal. But remember those poor people in the audience who haven’t been given a comfort break yet!
One of the best things about a fully written speech is that it can be timed accurately. Count the number of words in total, divide that by 120 – 150 depending on how fast you talk normally, and the result is the rough number of minutes the speech will last. Even if you’re not given a specific running time (as you may not be if it’s a social occasion) consider what you feel is the right time and cut your speech to match.
Now go out there and deliver!
Memorize the speech as well as you can, but don’t worry if you forget the odd “and” or “but.” If you say “er” and hesitate slightly now and again, it will make your speech sound more natural. What you must memorize perfectly is the content, and the order. When you’ve done that, develop bullet points to use either on a piece of paper or cue cards. Remember that at social occasions you won’t normally have a lectern or other place to read a script from, so make sure you can hold whatever you use in one hand.
Rehearse your speech until you feel comfortable with it but NOT so much that you become bored with it. That way it will come across more naturally.
And then, go out there and enjoy yourself. If you’ve prepared your speech well, you will.
Do you have any favourite tips on making social speeches? Please share them with us!
Now, speak up and get this even better help:
“Super Speeches”…how to write and deliver them well
“English to English: the A to Z of British-American translations”…more than 2,000 business and social terms from the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand
“The English Language Joke book”…hundreds of laughs about this crazy language of ours