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How to Make a Speech

Calming "The Jitters"

People not experienced in speaking to audiences of any size in formal or semiformal situations are often overcome with terror at the prospect of preparing and delivering a speech. A trip to the dentist or a high-wire walk over the Grand Canyon seems a pleasant pastime by contrast.

But this terror can be reduced, or even eliminated by agathering experience. This is not to say that concern, perhaps even slight apprehension, is not a plus when setting out to deliver a speech: A little nervousness will keep you on your toes and make your presentation more effective. Arrogance and condescension (born from terror) quickly convey themselves to an audience, however. Thus the speaker should be concerned about the task, but not paralyzed with fear.

Speaking is like any other activity, the more you speak in public, the easier the job becomes and the better you are at it. So, painful as it may seem at the outset, you should seize every opportunity to speak that comes your way.

How can you achieve the ideal state of mind so that speaking becomes a pleasure and not a hardship?

First, think of the times when you have been a member of an audience. As you settled back to listen to a speech, you undoubtedly had high hopes of being entertained or informed, or both, and wanted the speaker to do an excellent job.

So this is the first thing to keep in mind: the audience is with you, not against you. They want to hear your message, they want to appreciate your humor - in short, they want to like you and your speech.

Which is not to say there is no such thing as a hostile audience. If you undertook to deliver a talk on Calvin Coolidge as our most successful president to the Democratic National Committee, you would certainly not find the audience receptive. But, then, why would you accept such an assignment in the first place, unless your masochism is at a dangerously high level?

However, there are times when an audience is lukewarm or even potentially hostile, but will at least give your message a hearing. One of the most famous speeches in American history took place in 1896 when the Democratic National Convention was torn between so-called gold and sliver wings of the party, with neither side in control. Then, William Jennings Bryan delivered the "Cross of Gold" oration, calling on sectional prejudice and the self-pity and self-interest of residents of the Midwest, West, and South. He stampeded the convention and won his party's nomination, running on a platform that he dictated.

So, even if your audience is not worldly supportive at the outset, you can win them over with the appropriate appeal

Knowing Your Audience

One of the most important rules of good speech-making is know your audience. Many times as an undergraduate, in a speech class or elsewhere on the campus, you will have the opportunity to appear before groups of your fellow students. They constitute a homogeneous sort of audience and one you should know very well; therefore, you should be able to reach them with maximum effectiveness.

In later life, the situation may not be so clear-cut. The corporate executive addressing a meeting of stockholders faces an audience whose members have widely varying educational backgrounds and, perhaps, intellectual levels. He or she must tailor the speech so that it is neither too lowbrow for the well educated nor too highbrow for the others.

How can proper tone be achieved? The primary rule is to select the level of language appropriate to the listeners, unless of course the aim is not to communicate, but to intimidate. Philologist teach us that there are formal, informal, and common levels of speech, but presumably a speaker would resort to the latter only on the rarest of occasions, if ever. Thus the speaker choose between the two other levels, depending on the constituency of the audience. To one set of listeners there may be innumerable reasons for a course of action; to another there may be many reasons. To the former group, a theory may be pedestrian; to the latter commonplace.

Equally important, however, is tailoring the content of the speech to the listeners. Those accustomed to receiving information orally are able to assimilate more data in more condensed form than those who are inexperienced listeners.

Hence, if invited to give a speech, the speaker should ascertain exactly what the audience will be like. To be told that the speech will be given to a group of teachers is not sufficient. What kind of teachers? Elementary school? High school? College? Graduate school? Teachers of English? Teacher of biology? Teacher of computer programming? Similarly, an address may be to parents of high school students, 90 percent of whom go on to college, or to parents who see only 30 percent of their children undertake a higher education. The address will have to be quite different, depending on the circumstances.

Presumably when you are invited to speak it is because of your expertise in a certain area, and so it is unwise to assume that your listeners are as knowledgeable in this field as you are. Yet the temptation to talk down to the audience must also be avoided. It was Mark Twain who urged speakers never to overestimate the amount of information people have, but never underestimate their intelligence.

Purpose of Speech

Another significant element that must be taken into account while the speech is still in the planning stage is the purpose of that speech. It may have any one of four functions.

(1) The planners of an event may simply wish someone to stand up and make noises with his or her mouth. For instance, when a new municipal park is opened, it is considered appropriate to have the mayor or the parks commissioner preside over the ceremony and deliver some remarks. Everyone knows what is going to be said about increased recreational opportunities for young and old alike, the foresight of town planners, etc., but a speech is traditional and so a speech is delivered. And what is expected must be given: The mayor would make a bad mistake if he or she used such an opportunity to launch into an attack on the opponents of proposed changes in the zoning ordinance. The listeners want familiar remarks, and familiar remarks are what must be delivered.

(2) The planners may wish to be entertained. The most frequently encountered example of this is the after-dinner speech. Following a three-martini cocktail hour and a heavy dinner with wine, the last thing diners want on their menu is a lengthy, turgid, fact-filled oration. They want their relaxed mood to continue and so they want to be amused. This accounts for the popularity of stage, screen and television comedians on what is called the rubber-chicken circuit.

(3) You may be asked to transmit information. The primary example of this is the college classroom lecture, described by one cynic as the process by which the notes of the professor become the notes of the students without passing through the minds of either. Realistically, however, the system of supplementing textbook material with information gathered by the professor is standard in most colleges and universities. And there are many other examples of this function of speechmaking, especially in the sort of speech by a superior to his or her subordinates, outline new procedures, or by an expert informing the general public about the details of his or her work that pertain to them.

(4) A speech may be given to affect the listeners and thus influence their future courses of action. The church sermon tries to teach a moral lesson and thus to cause congregates to adapt their lifestyle to the strictures of a particular faith. The political speech attempts to indicate why a particular party or faction supports the cause it does and so win more widespread acceptance of those causes from actual or potential voters. The sales pitch is calculated to convince the hearers that all of their problems will be solved by the purchase of a particular product, thereby seducing them into purchasing that product.


The next issue you must consider is the length of the speech. Obviously this depends in large part on the content, yet you should not be oblivious to the fact that contemporary auditors have a shorter span of attention than did auditors of, say a hundred years ago. Indeed, in the days before electronic media became so important in our lives, listening to a speech was frequently an afternoon or evening's entertainment, the equivalent of going to a movie or a play in our day.

In the United States today, the era of the two- or three-hour speech has passed. Even an hour-long address, like that customarily delivered by the keynote speaker at a national convention, is quite rare. Further, recent presidents, when speaking to the nation via the electronic media, have almost invariably confined themselves to a half hour or even less. The precedent for this was established in the 1930s, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt inaugurated what he called "Fireside Chats," delivered over the radio. These brief and rather informal talks replaced the bombastic and extended oratory common to an earlier era.

Generally, it can be said that the shorter you make a speech, the more work it entails for you, but the more effective is it apt to be. The story is told of a college president asked to deliver a speech on any subject he chose, of any duration he chose. "If you want a two-hour speech, my fee will be $1,000; if you want a 20-minute speech, my fee will be $2,000," he said. The implication is clear: If a speaker is allowed to stand up and ramble on about anything that comes into his or her head, the preparation time will be minimal; if the speaker must organize the material carefully, he or she will have to spend time arranging and condensing the information to fit into the more confining limits.


A good speaker never relies only on on-the-podium inspiration to get through a speech. The "something will come to me" attitude is dangerous in the extreme, for if the "something" fails to materialize, the speaker is in real trouble.

A way of avoiding this is to write the entire speech and memorize it, but the risk involved here is considerable. If your memory is infallible, then this is a possibility, but if you are capable of forgetting, it is risky. There can be few more embarrassing moments for a speaker reciting from memory than to lose the thread of a thought and then have to pick up the text, leaf through it to find the point at which he or she broke off, and only then resume the speech.

Another way is to read the speech. Sometimes, of course, this is necessary, for instance, if a government official is outlining a proposal on, say, nuclear disarmament. He is going to be quoted by the electronic media and the newspapers, so it is essential to present the figures with 100 percent accuracy. Often the text of such a speech is *written out and mimeographed in advance for presentation to media representatives, but if it is not, there is all the more reason to read the text. Modern technology has made it possible for the text of a speech to be presented line by line on a screen at the lectern so that the speaker can create the illusion that he or she is not reading (but there is a drawback to this, which is treated later).

The ideal way to proceed, once the outline of the speech has been determined, is to comply a set of notes, perhaps on small cards, say, 4 by 6 inches, listing either the principal points to be made or perhaps key phrases that will serve to remind the speaker of those points. Winston Churchill, one of the most effective speakers of the twentieth century, used the latter method, jotting down important groups of words to recall strategic portions of his arguments and filling in the rest of the speech with transitions.

Voice and Gesture

As Churchill so expertly demonstrated, words are the principal weapon in any speaker's arsenal, but there are two other vital elements in speechmaking; the voice and the gesture, which also involve stance and mobility.

Just as the violin or the piano is the musician's instrument, so the voice is the speaker's. A mellifluous and resonant voice can sometimes cover up a feeble argument, and has often done so. Likewise, volume can play a significant role. The story is told of one speaker who wrote this message to himself in the margins of his notes: "Argument weak here. Yell like hell."

As an instrument, the voice is not that complex. The lungs are the bellows that force air through the windpipe into the larynx, the voice box; the passage of air through these vocal cords makes sounds that differ according to the action of muscles, which make the cords vibrate. These sounds are received into the open space of the pharynx and are modified by the palate, tongue, teeth, and lips to produce words.

The principal difficulty most speakers have is with the lungs. Either the person is not breathing properly (i.e., deeply enough) or the speaker is so nervous that the larynx tightens up and the air does not have a free passage. The result is a heightened pitch and, in the worst cases, a shortness of breath that leaves the speaker all but gasping.

Keep in mind that you ought not to be fatalistic about the pitch of your voice. To assume that the pitch of your voice is a give (or a curse) from the gods or an inherited trait and that you can do nothing about changing it is wrong. Rarely do people complain about a voice pitched too low; the objection is most frequently to a high soprano or tenor voice. But the pitch of the voice can be lowered by breathing more deeply. This is the most significant key to greater resonance, and many exercises exist to help you. When you are undressed, take a slow breath as if you were breathing the air into your stomach. Put your thumbs at either side of your waistline, with your fingertips trying to reach each other across the body directly below your ribs. Try to imagine that you are filling your stomach with air. Now give several quick gasps and you will feel your body pressing against your fingertips. This indicates that the muscles of the diaphragm are pressing against the abdominal organs to make room for your expanding lungs. Repeated frequently, this should result in the outward pressure of the body's growing relatively stronger at each quick intake of breath.

An important corollary on the use of the voice is to remember that, because you are speaking for 30 minutes, this does not mean that you must fill the air with your voice for every one of the 1,800 seconds involved. It is quite acceptable to pause in your delivery, for the alternative is to fill the spots where pauses may logically occur with meaningless sounds like "er" or "uh".

Almost as important as the words and the voice is platform presence, which involves stance, motion, and gesture. Most of our speech watching and auditing at the present time involves listening to either political speeches or sermons, neither of which provides an ideal model. When a president speaks, he is usually seated behind a desk so that we get, if not a talking head, a talking upper torso; if he is at a press conference, he is standing behind a lectern. Likewise a speaker at a political convention is bound to the lectern because he or she is reading from a Teleprompter; the clergy are confined to the pulpit.

To speak with maximum effectiveness, you should be able to move about - not of course that racing around the dais or stage is the best course, because too much motion can be distracting to the audience. Keeping distractions to a minimum is obviously important, since you hope to keep the listeners' attention focused on the content of the speech. Hence playing with a key chain or rattling coins in your pocket is hardly a valuable technique. However, by using the lectern as a sort of home base and moving around it, you can achieve sufficient mobility and still be able to consult your notes, if need be.

Your audience obviously will be looking at your head more than at your body, so a major question for you is what to let your eyes focus on. Ideally, you will look at all sections of the audience, but you do not want to do this at the expense of looking like a spectator at a tennis match. A good technique is to shift your focus as you shift your position on stage, or as you move from one idea to the next. Some speakers on the other hand, prefer to focus on a single member of the audience who appears especially receptive, and to speak principally to that individual. Such a person should be in or near the center of the audience, however, not in the front row or, say, way off to the left side or the majority of the audience will feel left out, a fatal flaw in a speaker.

Your platform presence begins the moment you are introduced and it is most effective to pause for a moment to look at the audience before you begin to speak: not too long, for you have no wish to look as if you are trying to stare them down or as if you'd forgotten why you are there. A brief sweep of those present should prove worthwhile.

Many speakers are bothered by the problem of what to do with their hands as they talk. If you are at a lectern and are forced to stay there, then there is no problem, because most of the time your hands will be clasping the sides of the lectern. If you are moving around, you may feel the problem more acutely. When you are not gesturing, there is no objection to your clasping your hand in front of you or behind your back or even (if you are wearing a jacket) putting one or both hands in a jacket pocket.

As to gesturing, there are more don'ts than do's. Above all, do not keep your hands constantly in motion, making fluttering, birdlike motions; it is better not to gesture at all than to do this. Second, do not make small, constricted gestures. The sole complaint that was made about President John K. Kennedy's technique as a speaker was that he had the habit of stabbing the air with his right hand, index finger extended: the gesture became monotonous and was always picked up by those who were parodying him as a speaker, principally because it was such a tight movement. Third, do not employ excessively flamboyant or effusive gestures. The day of grandiloquent oratory has passed, and most of us have been conditioned by television watching to expect retrained movements by our speakers. Finally, do not resort to obvious gestures. In delivering a phrase like "between you and me," do not accompany the words with a wide sweep of the arm to take in the entire audience and then with a hand pointed at your own chest. Indeed, as you grow more experienced as a speaker, you may well find that you are no longer concerned about what to do with your hands; having lost your self-consciousness, you will do what comes naturally.


As to the speech itself, clearly the circumstances determine its content. That is, as has already been pointed out, an after-dinner speech differs from a candidate's political address. Yet certain observations can be made about the parts encountered in most speeches.

(1) The introduction: When you are presented to the audience, acknowledge those in attendance in descending order of importance, with the presenter mentioned first, as, for example, "Mr. Chairman, Madam President, members of Alpha Alpha, Alpha, ladies and gentleman." Make it a point to look at the person or persons whose presence you are acknowledging, if you can conveniently do so. A speaker may create a poor impression by reciting this information while looking closely at his or her notes. If you intend to open your remarks with an anecdote or a joke, keep in mind that it must be apropos. Contemporary audiences are far too sophisticated to react favorably to lines like, "A funny thing happened to me on my way to the banquets tonight." If you do not have a story that fits the situation, leave the comedy to the comedians and get down to business. It almost goes without saying that a story or a joke in bad taste will cause you to lose your audience even before you start.

Do not forget that the first five minutes of your speech will make or break you. If you have not captured your listeners' attention by that time, you probably never will.

Thus it becomes incumbent on you early on to let your auditors know what you are talking about and your point of view on that subject.

(2) The next order of business is to present details of the matter you are discussing. In doing this, it is vital that you present your facts in such a way that they can be assimilated. As has already been suggested, many listeners cannot take in large doses of material presented to them orally. After all, a speech is not an essay on the printed page. With the latter, if the reader misses the point on the first reading, the text is still there to be consulted again. Not so with the former: If the listener does not understand on first hearing, there is no opportunity for review. With this in mind, you should reinforce every point you make with a simile, metaphor, or an illustration that vivifies that point and makes it more memorable.

(3) Then you should state what you propose to do about the situation under discussion and what you propose that your listeners should do. If, for example, you are delivering a political speech, you should make it clear that you intend to vote a certain way and urge that the members of the audience would find it wisest to do the same. There is, of course, no law that prohibits your suggesting that there are really no alternatives open to a rational human being. Your objective at this point is to make the strongest statement you can of your position and to impress on your audience that they ought to share that position.

(4) Following that, you should give your reasons for holding the position you do. If there is any historical background, that should be presented first. Then you should offer your arguments, staring with the most compelling and proceeding to the others in descending order of importance. When you are preparing your speech, discard any weak arguments.

(5) Then you should consider the arguments that have been raised against your position and tear them down. Here again there is no regulation mandating that you should state counter arguments completely or forcefully, since your air is to make them appear inconsequential. That is, if there is one powerful argument against the stand you have taken, you may not wish to mention it at all. As for disposing of the others, a good logic textbook will provide the weapons for your use.

(6) Finally, there is the conclusion. This is the most significant portion of any speech, because most people remember best what they hear last. It is no coincidence that some of America's most famous speeches are famous just because their endings are so forceful. Consider Daniel Webster's "Second Replay to Hayne, " which ends, "Liberty and Union, and for ever, one and inseparable." Or Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address, "which concludes, "government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth." Or, lastly, the aforementioned "Cross of Gold" speech by Bryan, which ends, "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold." If media representative are present, they may pick up a memorable phrase from the beginning or the middle of a speech and feature it, as happened with Franklin Roosevelt's "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," and John Kennedy's, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." If newspaper, television, and radio reporters are not among your listeners, however, it is best to build toward a climax at the end and save your best phrase for the last. You can be sure your speech has been successful when your audience is walking out at the end saying, "I could have listened to that speaker for hours," not "I thought that speaker would never stop."