These tips are intended mainly for students undertaking VCE English, however it is my belief that they will be more broadly relevant. After all, I have not studied VCE English. I have, however, always had a keen interest in public speaking, culminating in victory at the Victorian finals (2012) of the Plain English Speaking Award.
I am very frequently asked to give my advice on Public Speaking and hopefully you will believe that I am in such a position to do so. These are not exact instructions of how to speak. More than anything, you need to develop and pursue your own style of speaking and find what works for you; however, if you do follow these tips, I am hopeful that you will be able to deliver a great speech!
These tips address the very basic principles of Public Speaking. They include broad and general advice that every speaker should bare in mind when preparing and delivering a speech.
- The most offensive thing a speaker can do is be boring (a favourite of a teacher from my school)
- You must engage with your audience. Eye contact, stance, gestures and humour allow you to do so
- Spend the most time on your introduction, spend the second most on your conclusion
- Never use more than three statistics unless you absolutely have to
- Facts are great, but we like your analysis better
- Things come best in threes
- Write a speech, not an essay
- Remember that speaking is flexible and you have a lot more tools available to you than writing. Modulating your voice, pauses, gestures are all brilliant tools
- Talk your speech when you're writing it, whether in your head or out loud. This helps a lot!
A speech without good structure is like a house...without good structure. It's just shit. The structure of a speech should be as follows:
- Introduction: introduce your topic and, more importantly, how you will approach the topic
- The Middle: flesh out your speech, provide arguments and examples for your topic
- Conclusion: recap your topic and how you approached it
Choosing Your Topic
Choosing a topic is one of the most frustrating aspects of delivering a speech. It's also something that people very often get wrong. Using a few tests and following a simple process can help you choose the right topic.
- When reading the paper or watching the news, look for what interests you and what you actually want to watch (for VCE English)
- If you find yourself arguing with someone about something, this could be a very good topic for you!
- Once you have a solid option, road-test your topic. This means to have discussions with people about it. Don't keep it secret, talk to family, friends and teachers about it. Argue about it!
- If you feel comfortable and enjoy road-testing your topic, that's it. If not, roadtest another until you're "feeling it"
- Your topic shall not be asylum seekers or gay marriage
The introduction is the most important part of your speech. They say first impressions matter, and in the case of Public Speaking, this is very true.
- Don't directly refer to your topic (eg. today I am speaking about ____) just start talking about it
- Starting off with a joke, an anecdote, a bit of drama, a rhetorical question is a good way to start an introduction though are not vital
- Try to keep your sentences short, definitely keep your clauses short
- Speak to the layperson, not morons (don't state the obvious unless there's reasonable doubt about whether most will know it)
- Speak to the layperson, not experts (remember that whilst you may be expert on your topic, your audience probably isn't)
- Try to avoid stats in your introduction, unless they're really, really, really good and your audience is likely to be surprised to hear them
- Take your time, speak slowly, build drama and suspense. This is the key part of your speech, draw your audience in, encourage them to take the ride!
- Don't say "ladies and gentleman", "good morning/afternoon" or introduce yourself, unless you're speaking in a very formal environment
- If your speech relies on very clearly defined key points, you can refer to them directly (and briefly) in the introduction. Eg: It appears that the asylum seeker tragedy is clear to everyone in the world, save for Australians. There's a UN report, significant statistics and mounting international pressure to change our approach, yet we just won't listen!
The middle is the chunky bit in the middle of your speech. It's the boring part to write and the boring part to listen to. It is your proving ground and allows you to flesh out your ideas and then prove them.
- Do your research (facts and stats are good, opinion pieces will be a big help)
- Treat this as your proving ground, where you get to expand on your contention and demonstrate your knowledge
- Have three major "things". This really depends on your speech. If you're broad enough to have points, or different angles, only make broad points pertaining to your speech. For example, if you were talking about asylum seekers, you may address the legal aspect, the human aspect and the international relations aspect of the argument. If your topic isn't that broad and you want to focus more on individual pieces of evidence (perfectly ok), then only focus on three difference major points of evidence. So if your speech were about the legal ramifications of Australia's asylum seeker laws, you may like to focus on three different legal documents, three different legal system, three cases or, of course, a combination of these things. This law is not absolute, but things are better in threes. In particular, don't go beyond three big points. If you only have two, that's fine. Going to four makes things a bit ugly
- Examples, anecdotes, facts, documents are all on the table and are all good
- Introduce a key point and then provide evidence for it
- Don't be too mechanical about the structure, you can't write a speech like an essay. There are no linking sentences, you want nice segues into things (not news-type segues though)
- Pauses are the equivalent of topic sentences and are a brilliant way to change between points. For example: these statistics are unavoidable and show that the government's approach to asylum seekers is one that kicks the vulnerable whilst they are down. [long pause]. The recently commissioned Brock Report confirms this. To paraphrase, Australia's leadership is described as "cruel". The report... This doesn't show a particularly large shift in points, but without the pause, the structure would fall apart
- Always link back to the contention of your speech. Essentially, you want to present your evidence and then subtly explain to the audience what they should think about that point
Conclusions and introductions are very similar. In fact, they are almost identical. The conclusion is the second most important part of your speech.
- See: introduction
- Your conclusion should basically skim over what you've said and restate your topic and contention
- The conclusion is an opportunity to briefly detail what your speech is about
- Hopefully you can see by my rambling now that there's little difference between an introduction and a conclusion
- A good conclusion, with slight changes, should be able to serve as a good introduction. If it doesn't, back to the drawing board!
- The conclusion is slightly shorter than the introduction
Now that we've looked at the speech, we need to look at how to review it! To me, this is one of the most important skills and can make the difference between a good and bad speech.
- Once you have a first draft, read your speech aloud!
- If you stumble on a word or a sentence a few times, change it. This is the best indication that you are being too complex. If you can't follow it easily, neither will your audience
- Make sure the ideas are flowing properly, do you feel like you're jumping about when you're talking?
- Replace grammar and sentence structure with speaking techniques where you can. For example, using the pause construction mentioned above instead of obvious topic sentences
- Move around, change your voice, see how things flow. Are you feeling happy and confident? Are you excited by your speech? If not, make it more exciting
- Look for anything that sounds clunky or rolls of the tongue clunkily and change it
- Omit any repetitions, unless they are for rhetorical effect
- After you're getting near your final draft, if you're really struggling to remember what comes next in certain parts, look at them carefully. This is a signal that you may have something a little cumbersome or boring
- Convert your speech into a flow chart, making sure that the argument is well structured and that you aren't contradicting yourself—good speakers very often do the latter
- And lastly, don't be afraid to change lots! If your final speech looks anything like your first draft, it's probably rubbish
Here I'll list a few of the things I like to do in my speeches, some of the techniques that work pretty well. This list is not exhaustive by any stretch. The internet and your English classes will provide plenty themselves. Just remember one thing: rhetorical techniques normally come naturally, you don't need to know the name of everyone you use!
- Plain English: this is a great one to start with. It's great to show off some of your literary prowess at times, but better speeches are ones that the audience can understand and feel they connect with. Speaking to them on their terms makes this a lot better. Remember, Plain English doesn't dumb your speech either, it just means avoiding overly long sentences, verbosity and complex language.
- Tricolon: speaking in threes. There are some very famous examples: Veni, Vidi, Vici; Location, Location, Location; blood, sweat and tears. The pedants among you will point out that Winston Churchill actually said blood, toil, tears and sweat. The fact that we better remember the line as blood, sweat and tears is most likely because of our natural tendency to tend towards the tricolon. This is known as the rule of three and is prolific in literature and oratory (Google it!)
- Bookending: this involves starting and ending your speech very similarly. There are a few ways that you can do this. One such way is to start and end with the same line. Another is to tell an anecdote in your introduction, then return to this anecdote in your conclusion. An example can be seen in my speech, Who Am I?. This is a neat way of packaging your speech and forces people to remember the start as well.
- Humour: some people are natural joke tellers and some aren't; some are very good at nerdy speech jokes. If you can find a place to make an appropriate joke, this is by far the most effective technique. A joke invites the audience to experience an amazing emotion: laughter. This is the perfect way to connect with the audience and is something for everyone to give a shot!
- Suspense: rather than diving straight into your speech, it is sometimes worthwhile embarking on an anecdote or a bit of drama (my speech Media Gone Nuts illustrates the latter well). This creates a bit of intrigue about what the topic could be about and provides a good opportunity to show off your speaking skills. The anecdote or flight of fancy must be relevant, however, to the topic. This is probably more of an advanced technique, if I may say so.
- Voice: the thing that all good speakers have in common is that they use their voice as their most important tool. After all, this is speaking. Your voice should be going up and down. It should be loud and soft. It should go fast and slow. Your voice is the easiest and most direct way to convey emotion. It can separate between a joke or a truth, it can be cheeky or serious, it is the most effective way to sell a point. Most of all, modulating your voice will ensure that you remain interesting.
- Excited Energy: everyone gets nervous when they speak in public. If you don't, please share your secrets below, you superhuman you! What separates the good from the bad is the way people approach nervousness. Before you get up and speak, you want to be energetic and happy. So make sure you have some friends around, don't wallow on the speech, tell some jokes and have a laugh. Turn that nervous energy, into excited energy! This is also a good tip for exams (though it won't win you any friends if, like me, you bounce around before them like a rabbit on LSD)
- Have fun: most of all, Public Speaking is fun. So try to have some whilst you're up there! :)