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How to Prepare for a Speech (Part 1)

Preparation is without doubt the most important element to a successful presentation, and the best way to reduce nervousness and combat fear. This blog post series is designed for people seeking a comprehensive, simple guide for preparing a speech or presentation. It takes the reader through a process which begins by defining the audience, and concludes with some last minute tips for the day of the speech itself.

Prepare for a Speech

Preparing for a Speech

In this post, 1 of 3 in a series, you’ll read about the speech writing phase – creating an outline, deciding on good content, and putting it all together to produce a well structured speech. Let’s get started!

1) Define the Audience

The initial research for ay speech should begin by defining a target audience – the group of people who you will be seeking to influence or inform during your speech. The benefits of this are two-fold:

  1. Being aware of your audience helps when it comes to selecting a topic
  2. It also increases the probability of speaking to a room full of captivated listeners

As an example, a speech on pension plans won’t elicit the same emotional response among twenty year olds as it will among seventy year olds

Prepare for a Speech

Define the audience in 3 steps:

  1. Identify demographics (age, gender, profession and area of residence etc.)
  2. Contemplate needs and wants – what do they want to get from the presentation?
  3. Determine any obstacles in the audience coming to your point of view

2) Select the Topic

After you have defined your target audience and identified their needs and wants, it’s time to select a suitable topic. Knowing your target audience is just one factor when choosing a topic.

The other factors are the speakers knowledge and passion for the topic. You need to know more about the topic than your audience to be seen as a credible speaker. Your knowledge must cover not only what you plan to say, but go beyond that, so that you are comfortably able to handle questions.

Why is it so important to understand the topic? If you don’t understand the topic it is very hard to deliver a fluid, engaging presentation because you will always be focused on trying to remember information. You’ll always be focused on your notes.

Passion for spreading knowledge about a topic is the fuel that will power speech delivery. Without passion for the topic you may come across as uninterested and disengaged – and the audience is likely to follow your lead.

It’s important to consider the purpose of the speech. Do you wish to educate, motivate, entertain, persuade or inspire?

Finally, when selecting a topic, you must be aware of any other constraints that may hinder on the effectiveness of the speech. For example, is there a time restriction? Will the allocated time of 5 minutes be sufficient to get my key message across?

3) Plan the Outline

The basic structure of an effective speech consists of an introduction, body and conclusion. Similarly, the basic logic of an effective speech goes along the lines of:

Tell them what you’re going to say, tell them, tell them what you’ve said.

Combining the structural and logical elements, we get the following speech outline:

  1. Introduction — establish topic and message; outline supporting points
  2. Body — consisting of supporting points 1, 2 and 3
  3. Conclusion — recap supporting points; summarise message; call-to-action

You will see this basic formula used time and time again, in speeches, stories, movies, reports, and many other forms of communication. The body of the speech makes use of the well known Rule of Three.

4) Plan the Material

Now that you’ve defined your audience, decided on a topic and given some thought to the outline or structure, it’s time to start putting pen to paper. My advice is to begin by writing down a couple of ideas for the 3 main points. Don’t elaborate. Just write a few words for each. Your points should be a blend of the message you want to get across, what you need the audience to do, and how it will benefit them.

Conduct research on each of these points, separately. If you want to successfully substantiate any idea in your speech, you’ll need to make sure you back it up with credible sources (this is called the proof of concept). You need to become familiar with the background information on any point you plan to raise.

Prepare for a Speech

BONUS: While searching through information it can be useful to anticipate likely questions the audience may ask. Make a note of any quotes, statistics or other information to include in your speech, plus the relevant sources of the material.

With your research complete, and the information organised for each of the ideas you plan to discuss, you can begin (yes we have reached step 5!) writing the speech.

5) Write, Rewrite & Edit

It’s best to begin with a draft. Personally I prefer to use my laptop for writing a speech, but there’s nothing wrong with going down the traditional route of using a pen and paper. For the first draft it can be useful to write bullet points, or even key words, gradually building up to more details. Also remember that it isn’t necessary to write blocks of text in the order they appear in the outline. Start with the body of the speech, leaving the opening and conclusion until last.

Prepare for a Speech

Once you’ve written a first draft, it’s time to move to the editing phase. This is a highly iterative process, with each iteration leaving the speech a little better than the previous version.

The ultimate aim of the editing phase is to produce a speech that has clarity, structure and impact. Begin with macro-editing, the process of ensuring that the introduction, main body points and transitions, stories and conclusion combine to produce a well organised speech. When happy with how the overall speech is coming together, change focus and begin micro-editing. Micro-editing involves identifying the precise words, phrases and sentences that work best together to invoke the audience’s emotions.

“The speaker just went on and on and on…”

Organising your speech logically is one of the best ways to ensure clarity. Start with one point, and build out from there, as if adding one LEGO block to another over time. It is important to keep the structure of the speech tight. For each element ask “Is this essential?” If the answer is no, cut it.

Now What?

If you have followed the steps up until now you will have developed a speech outline that addresses your audience’s needs, based on a topic you are knowledgeable and passionate about. You will have prepared a clear and effective structure, researched ideas and decided on the points you plan on making in the speech.

In the next article (part 2) you will ensure that your speech makes an impact on the target audience by adding pauses, body cues, gestures and vocal variety (see here)