Two tips for a better speech

Reading time: Less than 2 minutes

Looking for the secrets of how to write a better speech? Here are two key ones…

I coach a debating team at my local high school. I LOVE this volunteer job because it allows me to connect with teenagers and it lets me teach them a skill that was so formative to my own young life. (I debated in both high school and university.)

Learning how to speak in front of others, in an engaging way and without fear, is useful to just about every career. This is true even if you never have to speak “formally” to a room full of people.

One of the things I teach my students about their formal speeches is to “sign post.” That is, when they get up to speak, they need to tell the audience the points they’re going to make. Then they need to make those points. Then they need to summarize the points they just made. This may sound endlessly repetitive but every speech longer than five minutes should do exactly this.

That’s because people hear speeches differently than they read them. Think about it! Speeches are linear. If, as an audience member you “zone out” for a moment — let’s say you’re thinking about that big report you have to write tomorrow — you have no way of hitting the rewind button. Or re-reading the part you missed because you were distracted. You have to pick up and continue with wherever the speaker is going at that moment. This is why repetition is so important.

Furthermore, when speakers are signposting, they need to give enough detail so that their points make sense. Too often I hear my students give a four-to-five word summary of their point that doesn’t really tell me anything. Last week we debated whether health care workers should be required to get flu shots and one of the speakers said, vaguely, “we think human rights are important.” Well, yes, most people would agree with that. But how does it relate to the topic? If you don’t tell your audience this, they’re going to miss your point.

If you ever have to give a speech — or write one for someone who does — be sure to signpost. And make those signs adamantly clear.

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