How to Prepare and Practise a Speech (1)

I am busy opining at Quora these days:

If a girl hits my ass, what does it mean?

She has a really bad attitude towards donkeys, so don’t marry her

What is the purpose for studying etymology?

To learn all about insects is the usual reason

What is Microsoft PowerPoint’s main purpose?

It’s the place where all the most depressed lugubrious bullet-points in the world gather before they finally die

What does my dream mean? In my dream, 4 of my friends and I found a wall in an alley covered with dip. The dip was attached by strings to the brick and when you picked the dip off, a new can would appear.

The alley is the Tunnel of Anxiety.

The dip represents Lust.

The strings represent Fidelity.

You’re subconscious is telling you that when you try to escape from anxiety by experimenting with lust, your sense of faithfulness will lead you straight to a tin can.

And so on.

But there is on Quora a lively flow of (very) basic questions about public speaking. Thus far too many people on Quora seem to want to become ‘motivational speakers’ and need ‘tips’ to help them achieve that noble goal. Others fret about odd details of PowerPoint.

One question asked over and over again in different variations is all about how one prepares for a speech or presentation. Should one ‘memorize’ or ‘rehearse’ one’s speech, above all to help manage nerves and a shaky voice and other physical or mental signs of stress?

To my amazement a steady stream of people who assert some expertise in this area insist that yes, you should memorise your speech and/or yes, that you should practise it incessantly in front of a mirror.

So I argue back against such advice, on both counts:

No, you should not ‘memorise’ your speech.

And no, DON’T practise it in front of a mirror.

What’s going on here?

* * * * *

Let’s say that you’re asked to give a TEDx talk, or a speech at a conference.In either case they want you to talk for about 15 minutes on the theme of Migrants and Borders. 

You’re OK as a speaker at small in-house events. But these are both high-profile occasions. You’ll boost or spoil your professional reputation in no time at all.

You work out that you can allocate some ten hours of seriously focused time to prepare for this event. How best to use those precious 600 minutes to deliver a winning speech on the day?

The very first thing to do is invest time in finding out everything you can about the event: what exactly happens on the day, and where you fit in. Thus:

Occasion – theme of event

Policy context for issues discussed – what’s the hot topic(s)?

Other speakers

How long EXACTLY you have to speak

When you have to speak – keynote, before lunch, after lunch, wrap-up

Where in the sequence on the day are you? Who’s immediately before/after?

Size and profile of audience expected: men/women ratio, numbers, sitting/standing, expert or non-expert

Interpreting needed? If so, for how many people? Simultaneous or consecutive?

Size and shape of room? Can you get a picture from the organisers of the set-up? How close are you to the audience? How far away are people in the front, and people right at the back?

Microphone – roving or fixed? Podium? PowerPoint? Sound for playing video-clips?

All these details affect the way you prepare and deliver the speech.

Unless you are sure about what you’re going to face on the day and how the speech will work, how can you sensibly write a word?

* * * * *

You gather in as much as you can find about such organisational details. Then you have some huge strategic decisions to make about the speech as a whole:

What are they expecting?

What are they not expecting?

What do they want to hear?

What do they NOT want to hear?

What do they NOT want to hear that you might decide to tell them?

What’s the tone of your speech?

You obviously want to project authority and engagement. But what else?

Cautious/careful? Decisive? Bold? Provocative? Mysterious? Steady-as-she-goes? Trustworthy? Ready to take risks?

* * * * *

The next thing to ponder is how many words you roughly need to emit on the day. They’ve given you 15 minutes – how many actual words is THAT?

160 words per minute (or 2400 words here for you) is the typical TED talk. Far too fast. But how much slower do you want to go?

I looked at this very subtle issue here:

There is a HUGE difference in the options a speaker has for conveying tone, authority, impact and humour as between 150 wpm and 80 wpm.

Note that neither is ‘right’ or ‘best’. They’re just doing different things

If it’s done well, speaking faster with lots of ups and downs of variation as in that Obama speech conveys a mood/tone of excitement and energy – inspiration. Just the right tone for a new President after a stirring victory. If it’s done badly, speaking fast is nothing but a gush of noise you can safely ignore.

Speaking slower with long, almost awkward pauses, conveys a mood/tone of wisdomThoughtfulness. Maybe even melancholy? But in all those things there’s a lot of humour if it’s done well. Done badly, it’s painful. The audience wonder if they should feel sorry for a speaker who doesn’t know what to say.

But in either case pace has to be context-specific. Size of room and audience on the day? Interpreters? Inside or outside? Audience sitting or standing? How far in this speech do you want the audience to think and learn as opposed to feel?

Ah! Good questions!

You conclude that you’ll err on the slow side with deliberate pauses. Some 300 people are expected. You want to dominate the large hall where the event takes place.

That means slowing down for strong confident emphasis. So at, say, 110 or so wpm you need some 1650 words.

Note the huge difference in that total and the typical TED total at that pace! Over 700 words fewer!

But, of course, the fewer the words, the more each word has to count. There’s no room for waffling to fill the space and add ‘padding’.

* * * * *


So what in fact to say in this speech? Fascinating though all this undoubtedly might be, don’t you at some point need to start, er, thinking about that?

See next post.

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