I had recently written this article for a national publication and thought it might be of value to share it with all of you on this forum as well. So here is my article on How To Write & Deliver Great Speeches.
A great speech is one that solicits a range of emotions, feelings and responses from its listeners. It must amuse, tickle, inform, question, relate, opine, entertain, engage. While it isn’t easy to achieve all these seemingly incongruous reactions, it is very possible. All it needs is a planned approach that takes certain key aspects and factors into account.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK
One of the most overlooked aspects of speech-writing is information about the occasion and the target audience. We tend to focus on writing a brilliant speech that is thoroughly researched and beautifully written while failing to take into account who our listeners are going to be. The more information we have about our listeners, the better informed we will be to make intelligent, strategic content choices. If for instance you know in advance that the audience will be made up of mostly middle-aged business people, your examples, your jokes, the context that you provide in your speech will be more appropriate and relatable to that audience. If on the other hand you know that the audience is going to comprise mostly of say, school children with a smattering of parents, your choice of humour, anecdotes and the language and style in which you speak will organically be one that finds favour and understanding among this relatively younger age group. In fact, the topic of one’s speech almost becomes secondary to the audience and the occasion, that is how important these two factors are. So do your homework, first and foremost, on these two aspects.
Speeches, no matter how serious one’s topic, must engage. One of the best ways of engaging a live audience is humour. Having said that, one must tread carefully while employing humour. First, it should never dilute the main topic. It shouldn’t be as though in a speech on gender equality for example, you are making sexist jokes. By that same token, if you are addressing a group where most people will be sought after individuals of a certain community, it would probably be unwise to poke fun at that community. So use humour, liberally even. But pay particular attention to what kind of humour. A good trick to avoid any controversy arising from jokes in public gatherings is to make the humour ‘self-deprecating’. Jokes at the expense of oneself rarely offend anyone. They are funny, engaging, yet inoffensive. Sharhrukh Khan’s now famous Ted Talk address is a great case in point where he pokes fun at himself being a self-obsessed ageing movie-star.
We place a lot of importance of researching facts, figures and statistics while preparing our speeches. Of course, this is of paramount importance and must be done. However, it is often in lieu of a personal touch to our speeches. Understand this, when people come to listen to speeches, they are there not just to get factual information on the topic or subject. That, they can, themselves, just as easily get from the internet. They are there chiefly to listen to a unique and personal opinion of the speaker. This opinion can be communicated most effectively, if the hard-factual portions of our speeches, are generously peppered with the speaker’s own ‘experience’ of the topic. His or her own stories, anecdotes, and slices from their personal lives that reflect their engagement in that sphere. For instance, if the topic of the speech is School Uniforms, one must share one’s own experiences of that by way of a story that could be the one time the speaker had to play a cricket match in school uniform and it was terribly uncomfortable to play effectively (if of course, the speaker’s opinion is that uniforms are not a great idea). My recommendation would be to begin the speech with a personal incident that connects topic and speaker rather than starting by simply stating “the topic for my speech is x,y.z”. The latter is passe, amateurish, and uninteresting. Towards the middle too, continue to share more anecdotes, and again, at the end, before stating your final opinion, try and include yet another personal incident. The belief that sharing personal stories is somehow unprofessional is not the truth. Personal stories must be wholeheartedly and generously used.
CONNECT WITH AUDIENCE
Most of us have an inclination to memorizing our speeches and delivering them verbatim. Without realizing, what this does is that it calls for all our attention and focus during speech-making, on trying to recollect the content of the speech. This distracts from any real engagement with the audience. A live event thrives on a human connection. Therefore, it is a good idea to write one’s speeches, but then, divide the speech into cue-cards with only the main points written on them, and use the cue cards to make the speech in a less formal, more instinctive, natural way where your mind and body is free to establish a connection with the audience. This will take practise since the memorizing habit will take some doing to kick. Once it happens though, you will find that you are able to adhere to all the body-language basics that are recommended for speech-making, because you will have the head-space to pay attention to those vital elements. Eye contact, dividing your sight-line between all quadrants of the audience, smiling, walking and using the length and breadth of the stage, gesturing with your hands; all these little tricks that give the audience the feeling that you are there, present, and interacting individually with each audience member will start to come naturally to you.
TONALITY & PACE
Finally, remember that you are there to make an impact with your speech. The first requirement in order to do this, is to have your speeches heard and understood. Rather than shoot like a bullet train and rush through your speech-delivery, a direct consequence of wanting to get the memorized speech delivered and done with; it is recommended that speeches be delivered in a moderate tempo. This helps the audience get the necessary time they need in order to really process and understand each point you are making. Pausing, increasing pace and volume, decreasing pace and volume, at crucial junctures throughout the speech also makes speeches more interesting, and make them seem like a dialogue or a conversation, rather than a boring lecture. So identify the most emphatic points in your content and at those places, pause, so that the focus of the audience in firmly on that extremely critical point you made.
A great way of improving one’s speech writing and delivery is to watch and listen to good speeches. On the internet, one can find a host of videos of great speeches. Similarly, there are any number of books that one can refer to and read the greatest speeches ever delivered. It really boils down to simple, yet personal content, that makes for the most memorable and compelling speeches.