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3 Ways to Nail a Speech (Or Come Pretty Close)

By Ali Nagy

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A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure and the privilege of speaking at my college’s annual commencement ceremony. The audience was a mish-mash of familiar faces, students who had begun school after my time, all of the people who had imparted wisdom to me over the years and their collective loved ones.

Shaking like a leaf in the Santa Anna winds, I stepped up to the podium. As my mouth opened and the words began to flow, I realized that I was going to survive the speech. There was even a slight possibility that I was doing a decent job addressing a crowd of over 3,000.

Below are pointers that stilled the shaking in my palms and the quaver in my voice.

1. RELAX.

Really. Just relax. Being tense does nothing but make your vocal chords tighten and your confidence dip. You’re far more likely to give a poor performance if you don’t realize one simple fact: the majority of the audience is rooting for you.

The mere thought of public speaking is enough to send a lot of people into severe panic attacks, sweats, shortness of breath-sometimes even tears. (This condition is referred to as Glossophobia) The fact that you, brave solider, are standing on a brightly lit stage addressing everyone means that you have obtained some respect before you even begin speaking. Take this knowledge, along with a deep breath, and stand a little straighter. You’re going to do beautifully.

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2. KNOW YOUR MATERIAL

It is easy to say too much about your topic and spawn a yawning, inattentive audience. It is also easy to engage your fight or flight sensory panel and say as little as you can as quickly as possible so that you can return to your seat. Neither of these approaches yield a spectacular speech. This delicate balance can be achieved by knowing your material.

“Know Your Material” does not mean that you have memorized your speech word for word. It also doesn’t mean that you are reading diligently from your carefully crafted paragraphs. Doing either of these things can make even the most dynamite speech fall flat.

Knowing your material does mean that you have an in-depth understanding of the points you need to cover to convey your message, and that you are also going to allow for some room for an organic delivery.

3. GAUGE YOUR AUDIENCE 

When addressing a room full of doctors at high noon, it’s pretty unlikely that you are going to use phrases like “OMG!” or “Totes.” Similarly, when speaking to a group of young professionals casually sipping beers, its perfectly acceptable to drop some of the technical verbage and speak a bit more candidly. Paying attention to cues from your audience can help you deliver your speech in a way that truly connects.

After looking out at the bright-eyed faces I had grown to know and love, all sitting in their dressy-casual attire, I knew that I needed to loosen up a little and bring up some points that would best encompass our shared memories of our school experience.

During my speech, I chose to omit an entire phrase (that I had worked VERY hard on at my desk on a late, late Wednesday night) added in a new thirty second paragraph, and rewrote the ending to my speech on the spot. I had deviated from the plan. I realized that I had still made my points and made them well, so instead of berating myself, I enjoyed the ripples of laughter and applause that my spontaneity had created.

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While I’m not going to be quitting my day job any time soon, and didn’t have the theatrics or poise of the gentleman who spoke before me, (An EXTREMELY seasoned theater professor and an all-around brilliant man-Mr. Donald Marinelli) I think its safe to say that my speech served its intended purpose, with minimal fumbling.

If you’d like to see how I did for yourself, please click this link and go to timecode 43:48.

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