Many readers open a book like this looking for simple guidance about surviving their next speech, report, or presentation. Here, for your benefit, is the briefest possible outline of how to do so.
Step 1: Think about your audience.
In the words of Aristotle: The audience is the beginning and the end of public speaking.
Tempting as it is to prepare for a speech by obsessing over your anxieties or your material, the ancient approach to public speaking consisted of doing the opposite. I’ll divide the process into three general steps: thinking about your audience; writing for your audience; and using your voice and body to connect to your audience and to enhance their ability to understand you.
The first task in thinking about your audience is to sit down…and…think about your audience. Before finalizing your topic or beginning to draft your speech, ask yourself the following questions, and write down your answers.
How many people will there be?
What race, religion, gender, nationality, and ethnicity are they?
How old are they?
How educated are they?
What’s the occasion for your speech? Why have they chosen you to speak to them?
What do they know about you and your topic?
Look at the room (or a picture of the room) where you’ll be speaking, so you have a clear idea of who will sit where and what it will be like to speak to them. Will you, for example, need a microphone?
What time of day will it be, will they be hungry, what will they have been doing before they hear you?
Do they have any printed material or web access to information you may be presenting?
If you’ve made it this far, you’ve begun to shift your focus from yourself to your audience. The next step will bring you even closer to seeing things from their point of view.
Step 2: Define your purpose for speaking.
You’re sitting at your desk, or in your car, or perhaps in your prison cell awaiting a parole hearing. You’re ready to start writing. But wait.
Before you do, ask yourself: What is my purpose for speaking? What do I want my audience to know or do as a result of my speech? Formulate your answer as a single sentence: As a result of my talk, they will know X, and respond by doing Y.
As a result of my presentation about my company’s analytics platform, they will know that we can help them be better at their job, and they will respond by hiring us to consult on their portfolios.
It may be that your purpose is merely to inform or to entertain and that you’re not asking your audience to do anything in particular. Either way, you need to know exactly why you’re talking. If a slide, statistic, joke, or anecdote in your speech doesn’t serve your purpose, cut it.
To return to Aristotle, people listen—people anywhere, to any speaker anywhere—for one reason: to be happy. If this seems odd, think how it feels to listen to someone prattling away about a subject you don’t care about. Does it make you happy? From your audience’s perspective, when you speak in a way that isn’t directly relevant to their happiness, you’re the prattler.
Your audience needs to know three things:
- What you’re talking about
- Why they should care
- What’s in it for them
The point is not that your talk itself must promise immediate, eternal, and infinite bliss for your audience. But every decision you make about your speech must demonstrate that you’re talking for their benefit, not yours.
Step 3: Outline and organize your speech.
Speeches and presentations are typically composed of an introduction, three to five main parts, and a conclusion. These parts should not be recited like a list, but must be organized around a larger structure. Some common organizational structures include:
Chronological: explains your topic along a timeline, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Today I’m going to talk about the history of pasta-making, from its origins as a handmade product in ancient China and Italy to its current manufacture in state-of-the-art factories around the world.
Spatial: lays out your topic according to physical or directional relationship. Today I’m going to talk about different types of noodles you can enjoy in Texas, Luxembourg, and northern Malaysia.
Topical: arranges information according to areas within a larger topic or category. Today I’m going to talk about the grains most commonly used to make pasta: semolina wheat, rice, and barley.
Cause and effect: explains the causes of or reasons for a phenomenon and the resulting effects (or vice versa). Today I’m going to talk about rising obesity rates in Texas, Luxembourg, and northern Malaysia, which scientists have increasingly attributed to the overconsumption of refined grains.
Problem-solution: defines a problem and articulates a solution. Today I’m going to talk about how sufferers of obesity around the world can benefit from eating pasta made from garbanzo beans, which contains fewer carbs and more protein than traditional pastas.
Whichever structure you choose, tell your audience early in your speech what it is: Here’s what I’m going to talk about, and here’s how I’m going to talk about it. As you proceed through the different parts of your speech, explain at every transition where you are: I’ve told you now about how we eat noodles in Texas. Now I’m going to tell you about how those crazy Luxembourgers eat noodles!
Step 4: Compose your speech
Experts have historically been divided about whether it’s better to write down every single word of a speech (and even to memorize it) or merely to sketch out the main points. There are pros and cons with both methods; either way, on the most basic level, your speech will be composed with words. Here are four guidelines for using them well:
- People are bad at listening—especially in a crowd. Do everything you can to help them hear and understand you. Use short words, sentences, and paragraphs to express your ideas. Use physical, concrete, vivid images that appeal to the senses, and active verb choices in place of abstract or passive language.
- As you write, and later as you practice, eliminate every word that fails to impart your exact and intended meaning. This means filler words like um, ah, like, y’know, and so on. But it also includes:
Sneaky, nonperforming words (like “just” and “really”)
Lazy catch-phrases and clichés (“at the end of the day,” “at this point in time,” “It is what it is,” and so forth)
Business jargon (“disrupt,” “learnings,” and every other nauseating bit of it, all of which is a fig leaf for genuine thinking and self-expression)
Pretentious, puffed-up word choices (“utilize” instead of “use,” for instance)
Bloated or inexact expressions (“five or six” or “about six” or “half a dozen” in lieu of “six”)
Slang terms, foreign words, or subcultural expressions your audience doesn’t understand.
- Be specific. Your family and friends know what you mean when you say “big,” “rich,” “dark,” “painful,” “successful,” and so on. But these everyday terms lose traction when spoken to a varied audience of strangers. A military veteran or trauma survivor, for example, might have a different idea of “painful” than your average clutter consultant. “A big house” means vastly different things to different kinds of people. If by “big house” you mean not, for example, jail, and not, for example, a 3,500-square-foot house but a 1,700-square-foot house, say so. If by “dark” you mean “midnight blue” and not “jet black,” take the trouble to make it clear. Words in a speech work best when everyone in the room understands the exact same thing.
- As you draft the ideas, metaphors, examples, and jokes that will make up your speech, compose them using terms and ideas drafted from the cognitive lexicon of your audience. Are you using inches as a unit of measure when addressing an audience that uses the metric system? Convert to their unit of measure.
On a more conceptual level, if you’re speaking to a group of Iowans while fundraising for a pediatric cancer organization, find examples of kids from Iowa who have suffered from the kind of cancer you’re trying to cure. If you’re speaking to a group in Fujian, China, find examples of kids from Fujian.
Step 5: Practice your speech.
For Cicero, history’s greatest teacher of oratory, the key to eloquence was not confidence, or intellect, or creativity, but the admittedly masochistic ability to endure the pain of preparation and rehearsal. There’s no aspect of public speaking more often overlooked or short-changed than teaching your voice and body to express the speech you have—so far—diligently composed for the page.
Begin by reading your talk aloud several times, with no attempt to be lively or smooth. Use a timer to ensure that you’re within your limit. The average listener can absorb about 125 to 150 words per minute. If your speech runs long, look for ways to shorten it.
Continue rehearsing, taking special care to enunciate clearly, listening attentively to how your words feel and sound. If they seem mushy, hollow, boring, or garbled, change them—or alter the way you’re saying them. If an angry or amused tone allows you to cut extra words from your speech (“I was mad,” “It was funny”), go for it.
Record yourself or practice in front of real people, or both, if you can. This will be painful. Believe me, I understand. But it’s better to hate yourself for a while before your speech than during your speech and then for every remaining moment of your life.
Look for opportunities to vary your tone, speed, and pitch. Even “serious,” data-heavy presentations are no excuse for a monotone. Does your voice correspond to what you’re saying? If you’re discussing something tragic, let your voice reflect it. If you’re telling your audience how thrilled you are to be speaking to them, don’t say it like you’re facing a firing squad.
Memorize your introduction and conclusion. Brain freeze occurs most commonly during those awful seconds when you first face a crowd. If you train yourself beforehand with this five-minute exercise, a small cluster of neurons will, almost magically, remember how to get your lips and tongue moving, despite yourself. Endings tend to bring on a similar kind of paralysis. It’s all too easy to flounder at the end of your speech and taper off on a weak note (“Um, so well, yeah!”), leaving your bewildered audience unsure if you even finished. Commit your conclusion to memory—just a sentence or two—and it will guide you like a goalpost to the end of your speech.