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Seven Tips for Savvier Speechmaking

I come from a long line of savvy (and rather shameless) speechmakers. As far as my mic-hogging uncles are concerned, any given occasion is special enough to warrant a barrage of special introductions, hearty congratulations, and (often drunken) unsolicited advice. I was a teacher myself for eight years, so I’m no stranger to public speaking either. I do realize, however, that my rambling relatives and I are the exception rather than the rule.

Speechmaking—or any form of public speaking—doesn’t come naturally to most people. But since speaking to groups of people is inevitable (particularly in business) it’s important to know how to do it right.

Any time you give a speech, you want your audience to listen attentively, understand what you’re saying, and remember any important points that you’re trying to convey. For this, you need much more than just good material.

A well-written speech isn’t hard to come by. If you can’t write it yourself, you can always get someone to write it for you. A well-remembered speech, however, is a whole other affair. The secret to unforgettable, inspiring speeches lies mainly in your delivery—the techniques you use to capture attention and effectively get your message across.

1. Follow the “Tell ‘Em Three Times” Rule
At the beginning of your presentation, tell them what you’re going to tell them … then tell it to them … and finally, at the end of your speech, tell them what you just told them.

This is probably the oldest rule in speechmaking—and with good reason. Because it works. The “Tell ‘Em three Times” rule makes it easier for your listeners to follow the details of your speech—and easier for you to stick to the point.

2. Show Your Enthusiasm
If your own speech bores you, it only follows that it’ll be a yawn-fest for everyone else who hears it. Enthusiasm is contagious. If you’re enthusiastic about your topic, you’ll ignite interest in everyone who listens to you.

3. Structure Your Speech into 6-minute “Sound Bites”
According to Business Week magazine, the typical executive has an on-the-job attention span of six minutes. Plan your presentation as a series of six-minute “sound bites”—and plant a verbal flag between each segment with a statement like “Let me highlight this idea for you.” This signals the main idea of that particular section and grabs your audience’s attention.

4. Build Rapport with Your Audience—One Person at a Time
The best way to overcome any initial nervousness is to look for a friendly face in the audience. (If you feel the need, maybe you can even plant one beforehand.) Smile. Make eye contact. Try to get a reaction. Then move on to someone else and try again. If you speak to individuals rather than the entire group, public speaking becomes a much less formidable task.

5. Try to Involve Your Audience in Your Speech
Encouraging participation—whether verbal or mental—keeps your audience proactive in their listening. You can involve your audience in your speech by asking rhetorical (or answerable) questions, telling a joke, taking a quick poll or (where appropriate) conducting a question and answer period after you speak.

6. Practice
Even the best supposedly “extemporaneous” speakers have had some sort of practice—at least in their heads—some time before the speech itself. Use the mirror, your spouse, or a friend—but never let the actual event be the first time you deliver your speech.

7. Memorize the First and Last Lines of Your Presentation, but Nothing Else
Never EVER read a speech from a bunch of papers! GAH! When you read a speech, there’s no way to effectively build rapport with your audience. If you need some sort of script, prepare notes on index cards. Each card should contain just a short phrase that will remind you of a story or an idea about which you can speak confidently.

To give a great speech, you need a strong opening and a strong close. But in between … just speak from the heart.