Wing It or Plan It? The Prepared Speech
As promised, I’m writing a series of blog posts on the art and science of public speaking.
I’m a Toastmaster, and this particular organisation has been of great value to me. Although I have worked in the speaking industry (specifically in the training industry) for many years, I have discovered over the last three years as a toastmaster that I have a lot to learn about speaking in public.
I hope to be able to share some useful insights with you, which will help you with your own speaking challenges.
Ways to Prepare a Speech
Okay, so you need to present in public. Perhaps you need to make a workplace presentation. You might have a student report to present. You want to come across well in a job interview. You have an award to accept or present. You need to give evidence in court. You have to provide information about an event or fundraiser on the radio.
It doesn’t matter why you need to speak in public. What matters is that you need your words and presentation to work for you, to achieve a certain goal.
We’re not talking about impromptu speaking, here. That’s when you have no time to prepare before your mouth needs to open and awesome words need to come out of it. Keep an eye out for another post on this topic.
Today, we’re assuming you have several hours at least (if not several days or weeks) to prepare what you’re going to say. You may not know the exact order in which you’ll have to deliver your points (think of a job interview, for example). But you do know exactly what you need to say.
You can prepare for a public speech in one of three ways:
- Write, memorise, rehearse (Plan It)
- Plan, write notes, rehearse (Partially Plan It)
- Make it up as you go along (Wing it)
All three are valid options and it will depend at least in part on your personality which one you pick. Let’s examine them.
Write, memorise and rehearse
This is one which tends to suit me, as a writer, although not always. I write and rewrite the words I want to use, the phrases which will affect my audience, and the structure of my speech. This way I can make sure that there is a good introduction, an interesting and engaging body and a compelling conclusion. I know approximately how many words can be said meaningfully in five, ten or fifteen minutes, so I can control the length of my message.
Then I read my words aloud. This is when I identify sentences which don’t flow or are difficult to get off the tongue. I edit.
Once I’m happy with the contents of my speech, I set to work memorising it. Sometimes this is an organic thing: if I’m delivering a training course, I become more and more fluent each time I deliver it. I get my ‘patter’ down. I know which jokes I’ll make and when. I know which bits to emphasise and which bits can be edited down, according to my audience.
At other times, when I don’t expect to deliver the speech more than once or twice, I work deliberately to become as familiar with it as possible. I learn it off by heart, paragraph by paragraph. I focus on the key words or beginning words of each paragraph, so that I will have prompts in my mind if my memory fails me. I focus at all times on the message and the meaning behind the words, so that I can imbue them with emotion and pace – and this also assists with memory. Sometimes I incorporate movement into the memorisation. I’ll use a hand gesture here, or take a step there, to emphasise a particular point.
In order to do this well, you really need to know a bit about your audience and the location of your speech. You need to know how long you have and what equipment is at your disposal. Delivering a perfectly memorised speech about the perils of choosing your first set of earphones, complete with whispered remarks and sound effects, will do you no good if you find yourself speaking without a microphone to a group of elderly carpenters.
When I know my speech backwards and forwards, I’m able to relax into the performance of it. I know that the content will take care of itself, so I can concentrate on the audience, the speech’s effects, the pace, the room, the body language.
Pros: I have more control when I take the floor, and I feel less nervous about standing up. I know that my words and performance are well-chosen and designed to achieve my goal. I am far less likely to strike a false note.
Cons: I have less freedom to improvise if I have rigidly planned and made no allowances for the unexpected. I may sound less fluent and natural (though this can be overcome with rehearsal).
This option works well for a planned ceremonial speech, keynote or work or academic presentation, in which you take the floor and don’t share it.
That’s how I like to prepare a speech. But sometimes, it’s not that easy, or I simply don’t have time. In that case, I’m more likely to:
Plan, write notes and rehearse
This option is good for when you know the main points you need to cover, but you don’t have time to learn an entire speech. It’s like planning for an essay in an exam: you don’t want to waste time memorising a whole essay, especially if the question turns out to be different than what you expected.
Instead, you focus on the important bits. You think about what you need to say, what you’d like to say and in what approximate order.
Then you write your bullet points. You can pop them on a card if you want that extra bit of security.
Next, you rehearse. Focus on the points you wrote down. Learn them. Some people memorise important points by writing them down, over and over. Others put them to music, a little tune or rhythm in their mind, to aid recall. Then look at them one by one and practise what you’ll say to address each point. Each time you rehearse a point, you’ll use slightly different language and that’s fine. There are a hundred ways to say something, and if you practise a lot, you’ll be fluent no matter which words come to mind on the day.
Pros: If you are a natural performer who still wants to hit the right notes, this gives you a good mixture of freedom and control. You can still be yourself and react to the room and the unexpected, with the benefit of knowing where you’re going and what you need to accomplish.
Cons: It’s easy to get side tracked, to start waffling on or to use language that detracts from your message.
This is a great way to practise for a job interview, panel interview, radio interview, or any other occasion where you might be questioned and cannot completely control your message’s delivery.
But there’s one other way to deliver a speech, and that’s:
Make it up as you go along
This one I wouldn’t recommend for a formal speech or presentation. But hey, sometimes you have no choice in the matter. You might be asked to speak on a subject at a work meeting, completely without warning. You might feel strongly about an issue at a community meeting and decide to voice your concerns.
Impromptu speaking is an art form and one that very few can do well without considerable practice. That’s the key, really. The more you practise forming well structured and fluent speeches off the cuff, with great word-choice and deliberate use of pace and tone, the better you get. I’ll discuss this more in another post, but for now, bear this in mind. Speaking off the cuff for ten minutes requires exactly the same preparation and skill set as speaking for one minute or thirty seconds. Once you’ve mastered the basics, there’s nothing to stop you in any situation.
Pros: If you can do this well, you look damn good! You will be welcomed anywhere as an entertaining, engaging and fluent speaker.
Cons: If you can’t do this well, you will look and sound dreadful. People will wish they’d never asked you to speak. You will wish the same thing. Talkative people are often confused for good speakers. They are not the same thing. You may have an amazing message, but if you can’t deliver it well, it will be lost and you will be left wondering what on earth went wrong.
What kind of speech planner are you? What are the pros and cons, in your opinion? Comment below.