Want to be a great speaker? Move beyond your delivery and write to connect.

Speechwriting is an art, and, like most art, I’ve found that people either love it or hate it. The outgoing among us love it. After all, there’s nothing better than a captive audience when you’ve got something to say. (And outgoing people almost always have something to say.) More reserved leaders are often intimidated, either by the idea of being the center of attention or by the actual writing of a speech –sometimes both.

As a former Toastmaster and current freelance speechwriter, I’ve found a well-written speech can be a difference-maker, boosting member confidence, drawing in new members, uniting leaders, building community goodwill, and –last, but certainly not least –altering the perception of the speech-givers’ approachability and charisma. Simply put, a great speech, delivered well, makes people like you, like themselves, and learn something. A bad speech is a boring waste of time for everyone but the speaker.

Just imagine: you’ve been asked to “say a few words” at a meeting, conference or event, and you’ve spent the better part of a week stoically crafting everything you think is important to include. You’ve organized your notes. You feel prepared, and confidently take the proverbial podium. It’s tempting to think that your success is solely dependent on your delivery –that if you stand-up straight and speak in a clear, confident voice, people will engage with you –but that’s only part of the equation. If you want people to respond positively to you and your message, and you want them to retain what you’ve said, you have to forge a connection through the words themselves –not just the way you say them.

Here are my tips:

Write verbatim.

While it’s true there are great speakers who need nothing but an outline in order to present to an audience, and while there are surely occasions for which this is appropriate (PowerPoint presentations come to mind), I’ve found that fully writing out a speech gives you the chance to perfectly measure and balance your vocabulary choices, rhythm, pace, and ability to sway your audience. It gives you control. I’m not saying you can’t instinctually deviate in the moment, but going in without knowing exactly what you’re going to say and exactly when you’re going to say it puts you at risk for forgetting your points, going off on a tangent, or saying something that you really wish you hadn’t said. Don’t be Biden. Don’t be Nadella. Stick to the script.

Keep. it. short. (And keep it organized.)

There is no better advice than to control the length of your speech and structure it in a way that makes sense to your audience. The attention span of today’s average adult audience varies between five and 20 minutes, depending on your source, with most agreeing that you will lose more than half of your audience well before the 10-minute mark. There are some instances where a longer speech is necessary –like if you’re asked to give a 30-minute keynote address –but that’s a whole different ballgame with its own tips and tricks. Most speeches needn’t hit the 10-minute marker, and some of the best I’ve ever witnessed have come in between four and five minutes long.

Maximize the changing of the guard.

I always liken taking the stage (or standing at the head of the conference table, or beginning a conference presentation) to the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. Imagine strolling by, noticing the Guard. You’re about to leave, but suddenly they march away and are replaced by a new Guard. So you stick around for a few more minutes thinking that maybe these newcomers will bring something new to the table.

Audience interest is renewed in the brief moments between your introduction and when you begin speaking. Your first few sentences are either going to capture the crowd’s attention or signal them to zone out again. It’s important that you recognize and make the most of those critical first words. Tell a story. Tell a self-deprecating joke. Ask a question. Use the first few seconds to establish that what you have to say is not the status quo. Which brings me to:

Audiences are self-involved.

It’s true. And it’s perfectly natural for members of your audience not to care about things they can’t relate to and aren’t all that interested in. Your credit union had a banner year highlighted by record-breaking loan growth? Great. But you’re better off illustrating that fact with a story, preferably a story about people. Entertaining your audience isn’t necessarily about being funny. Some speeches that are very entertaining are also very serious. But make no mistake, you do need to entertain: titillate your audience, make them laugh, ask a question that makes them think, draw them into a story like a good audio book on a long car ride.

Resist the urge to indulge yourself.

I highly recommend talking about yourself during your speech, especially in a self-deprecating way, as it’s one of the quickest and easiest ways to appear like-able and it allows your audience a way to relate to you. But if you’re someone who really likes the sound of your own voice, please remember that it’s not about you. If you really want to make an impact on your audience, do not use your precious few minutes of time thanking random people or organizations, overtly marketing yourself or your services, or going on about any pet project or soapbox issue unrelated to the message at hand. If you engage and connect with your audience, they will remember you and opportunities for self-promotion will abound.

Who cares?

Ah, the message. For all the humorous stories, perfectly crafted anecdotes, and thought-provoking questions you will write into your speech, don’t forget to ask yourself, “Why should people care about this?” It’s a sure-fire way to make the end of your speech a call-to-action, giving audience members a take-away and something to remember you by.

For more in-depth information on these and other speechwriting tips, visit the Toastmaster website.

Hilary Reeves

Hilary Reeves

Hilary Reeves spent 10 years as a journalist before leaving the newsroom to become a freelance writer and editor. She currently works as a consultant for CU Breakthrough, a service ... Web: www.cdcu.coop Details