Today marks the 56th anniversary of Martin Luther King Junior’s famous ‘I have a dream’ speech. Arguably one of the world’s most recognised and repeated speeches of all time, King knew exactly how to harness the power of a social movement and distil it into a speech.
The speech delivered at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, goes for about 15 minutes. What you may not know is that only about half of the speech that was delivered was written. For the second half of the speech, MLK Jnr is ad-libbing; picking up from someone yelling from the crowd “tell them about the dream, Dr King!”
As a serious language nerd, speeches are one of my favourite things to work on.
Getting a message across persuasively and effectively with personality and without sending the audience to sleep is a challenge, but a fun one. I get to bury myself into words and language devices to find which one works best with the topic, with the sentence and with the overall tone of the speech. (If you’re interested in learning more about the language devices regularly used in speeches, you can check out this great website.)
The real difficulty comes when it’s time to deliver that speech. Unless you are delivering your own speech, you have zero control over how it is delivered and received. But there are things you can do as both the speechwriter and the speaker to make the speech go smoothly.
Have a back-up plan for if you’re losing your audience
Even the best speech in the world just sometimes doesn’t hit the mark. If you’re the last keynote speaker on the last day of a conference, your audience is going to be tired and looking for the bar? What is your back up plan if it’s going horribly wrong? How are you going to keep your audience engaged?
At October Business Month last year, Turia Pitt made us get up and do squats. There was no danger of us losing interest in her amazing story but she was prepared anyway!
Have a plan if your time is shortened or extended
One of the previous speakers at your event has gone over time and your timeslot has been reduced down from 30 minutes to 15. You find out just as you’re walking on stage. How are you prepared to deal with this?
It’s unlikely you’ll have a spare, shorter version of your speech so it’s important that you know what to cut out, how to link the shortened sections and that it still makes sense. You may never need to put it into practice but you don’t want to be doing it on the fly.
Don’t rely on a PowerPoint!
When I see a speaker with a PowerPoint presentation, I shudder. Nine times out of ten, the speaker writes their entire speech into the template and then just reads it off the screen. Do not do that!
Any visual presentation you prepare should have the most important points (it’s not all important!); graphs, videos or images that demonstrate what you are talking about, or key questions and issues you want your audience to think about.
Reference previous speakers and interesting points they raised
If you are speaking at a multi-speaker event, it can be useful to leave space in your speech to refer to something interesting said by previous speakers. These might be comments that you agree or disagree with, data or stories that support your perspective, or might just be something you learnt that you’ll take away with you.
If it’s not directly relevant to your speech then keep it brief. You don’t want to get bogged down in other people’s thoughts that reduce your time to say something important.
Prepare your ad libs!
Unless you are a seasoned public speaker, it’s probably a good idea to have any personal anecdotes, jokes or stories dot pointed in your notes. The presence of an audience can be quite off-putting and if you look up and freak out, you need to recover quickly!
If you do genuinely ad lib during your speech, stay calm and make it work! If it’s not working, get back to your written speech as quickly as you can.
Practice out loud!
Practice in the car, at work, in front of the bathroom mirror, at the gym, in the shower, everywhere. Even if you wrote the speech yourself, practice it out loud! What sounds right in your head doesn’t always sound right when you say it.
I have a client I write speeches for who calls me to practice out loud each time. It allows him to be confident with the material but also fix any word combinations that are tricky to say, remove words that he wouldn’t use, time how long it will take, mark where words and phrases need to be emphasised, and just generally see how it sounds. Find a trusted friend and make them listen and tell you what works and what doesn’t. Now is not the time to be shy!
Check that your jokes are funny!
This is another benefit of practicing out loud with a trusted person. If your jokes don’t land, ditch them. If there’s a chance that your joke will be seen as insensitive or offensive or if you are making a joke at someone’s expense and they may not find it funny, don’t do it.
The joke that works in a best man’s speech at a wedding is unlikely to work at a corporate event. If it isn’t met with enthusiastic, appreciative laughter then leave it out.
So there you have it; some easy things you can do to make your speech go smoothly and make a big impact with your words.