“Put me up on stage in front of a microphone to speak off the cuff, and I do great,” one of my workshop participants said not long ago, as we talked about speech delivery. “But give me a written speech to read and I just go dead,” he added, slumping in his chair to underline the point.

“I’m not an actor. I don’t do well with a script,” said another participant, as her neighbours nodded. “I can’t lift the words from the page.”

I hear that a lot. And it’s not surprising: we get plenty of practice speaking spontaneously with verve and emotion. It’s practically all we do in conversation. But reading from the page? That can feel stilted, artificial, even a little fake.

We’ve talked before about speaking as performance, and about performance as being a series of intentional choices. Faced with making the unfamiliar choices involved in reading from the page, many people don’t make any choices at all. The result is often a listless monotone, or a sing-song-y voice that, if anything, sounds even less life-like.

And there’s a vicious circle at play. The speeches you’ve read in the past feel drab and lifeless, so you don’t have the confidence you’d need to perform well in the future.

Here are some ways to break that circle, and breathe new life into written speeches. As you read these steps, bear in mind that many speakers do these things instinctively. You may not need the scaffolding of (for instance) colour-coding sections of your speech for tone. And you’ll find over time that you need less and less of it. But the stages themselves — making those big delivery choices, knowing your speech, rehearsing thoroughly and delivering effectively — are crucial for performing your best.

Crunch time? If you’re handed a speaking text with very little notice (for example, if you’re speaking in the context of a fast-breaking news story, or delivering a statement about a rapidly developing crisis), I’ve included a crunch-time tip in each section.

Make your big choices

If you wrote your speech yourself, you probably already have a sense of what emotional tone you’d like to strike in most if not all of it. You may have “heard” your own voice as you wrote it — pausing here, slowing there, emphasizing this or that point. (And if you work with a speechwriter, they may well have heard something like that.)

Now’s the time to capture that, in particular your high-level choices about tone — and where you haven’t made those choices, this is the time to change that. Mark your speech up; you could do worse than to use coloured highlighter pens, one colour for each kind of tone; you might choose pink for strong and passionate, blue for cool and analytical, green for light-hearted and humorous. (There are probably as many systems for marking up a speech as there are speakers who use them. Some use symbols in the margins; some draw arrows pointing up or down to show rising and ebbing levels of emotion. You do you.)

Look at your speech as a sequence of shifting tones. Are you varying tone often enough to keep your audience interested? Are any of the transitions jarring (say, from quiet contemplation to uproarious laughter in two lines)? Is the overall emotional arc of your speech building to the emotion you want to end on?

You may find you need to rearrange elements of your speech to make that arc work for you. This is the time to do it.

Crunch time? Skim the speech. Take a moment to think about its emotional arc. Now mark it up in the margin for emotional tone: a word like light, stirring, crescendo, somber, concerned, angry, happy or grateful can give you the cue you need in the moment.

Know your speech

The most important key to bringing your speech to life is knowing it. Knowing it well enough that you don’t have to reach into your memory for the next sentence or passage — that it’s right there waiting for you.

Sure, you have the text in front of you. But it’s a prompt, not a script. When you know your speech that well, you can speak naturally and confidently because the words are coming from inside, just like when you speak in a conversation.

Even if you don’t have a chance to commit the entire speech to memory, try to know the most important passages by heart:

  • the first few sentences, so you can dive right in and connect with the audience
  • the conclusion, so you can finish strong, looking people in the eye
  • and those critical sentences and phrases you want people to take home with them.

And if you know the rest of your speech well, know those parts cold.

Crunch time? Pick the one sentence you want your audience to remember. Take two minutes to commit it, as much as possible, to memory.

Rehearse

Knowing your speech means knowing not just the words, but how you’ll deliver them. And that means rehearsal. (If it’s been a while since you read my post on performance, this might be a good time to refresh your memory.)

Some beginning speakers treat “rehearsal” is a dirty word. They worry about being “overprepared,” and that being too practised and polished will rob the speech of its authenticity, spontaneity and power.

But what I’ve seen time and again is that “overpreparation” is actually underpreparation: that uncomfortable middle ground where you’ve learned and rehearsed your speech well enough to know the words, but not so well that they come easily and fluidly. Pushing through to being genuinely prepared means acting on the choices you’ve made to lend it spark and vigor—and that in turn allows you to make choices in the moment of delivery that really are spontaneous.

As you rehearse, you’ll make more choices—subtler ones this time about pace, volume, pauses and gestures. Where you make a deliberate choice you want to remember, mark it down. Underline words you want to hit hard; use oblique strokes to break sentences into phrases; do whatever works to help you to remember for next time.

And read expressively. You can start now, by observing yourself in conversation, and noticing how you naturally project emotion and emphasize words and phrases. (Apologies in advance if you’re a little self-conscious for the next few days!) In particular, take note of what happens to your pitch, volume and pace — and also your face and body language. Bring those expressive tools deliberately into your delivery when you rehearse.

You’re aiming for a heightened version of your own natural conversational style. You may find there are a few oratorical flourishes you enjoy; that’s fine. But if you find yourself doing something close to a celebrity impersonation, it’s time to back off. And in particular, don’t try to impersonate newscasters or radio announcers in your style. They have some very particular ways of speaking that usually don’t translate well to speeches.

Crunch time? Give the speech a read-through. As you go, mark up breaks between phrases and words you want to emphasize. If you have time for another read-through, go for it.

Deliver effectively

It’s time to hit the stage, and make all that preparation count. Set yourself up for success with a good night’s sleep the night before (which not only keeps you quick-witted, but puts your memory on its best footing) and a healthy breakfast that morning, because a blood sugar crash ten minutes into your speech does nobody any favours.

Visit the venue before you speak. (An AV check is the perfect time to do this.) Visualize yourself walking out onto the stage and up to the mic, and saying your opening line.

While you’re waiting to speak, do a little warmup. Recite some song lyrics or an old poem to shake off the vocal dust. (I’ve been known to do Robert Burns’ “To a Mouse” or Falco’s “Der Kommissar.”) A few breathing exercises will help dispel anxiety while preparing your respiratory system for action. And avoid distractions: don’t do one last email send-and-receive or check Twitter just before you walk on.

When the time comes, hit the stage confidently, the way you visualized earlier. Head to the mic, take a moment… and then begin.

There are entire books out there about effective speech delivery. But in terms of bringing a written speech to life, here are the two things I see the most often that can make the biggest difference.

First, eye contact. It’s a huge part of turning recitation into delivery, and you can’t do that if your eyes are on the page. So as much as possible, look at the audience, not at your speaking notes. I like to divide the audience into sections—left, middle and right; front, centre and back—and pick someone roughly in the centre of each section to look at while I speak. Then I’ll shift from one section to another every few sentences or so.

And second, give it your all: all your energy, and all your focus. Don’t think about getting it over with, or whether you’re impressing your boss, or even how you’re doing. Any time you feel your mind drifting to thoughts like that, refocus gently but firmly on your message and your audience.

Crunch time? Take a moment. Take a deep breath, hold it, and let it out unhurriedly. Do that two more times. Now picture yourself heading to the mic and delivering that first line. One more deep breath. Okay, go forth and knock ’em dead.

Image: “kite” by flickr.com/mrtopp. Used under a Creative Commons license.

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