It is frequently referenced that the number one fear of most people is public speaking. I am not one of those people. I enjoy getting in front of a group of people and delivering a passionate speech – it’s quite fulfilling.
I am a member of a local Toastmasters group here in Louisville, which gives me a great opportunity to speak about a variety of topics, almost none of which are about work. The best part about this group is the detailed feedback that is given. This is the kind of thing that doesn’t happen in traditional speaking environments. No one cares enough to tell you that your hand gestures were distracting, or your eye contact was lacking, or your vocal variety could use work. This kind of feedback can dramatically improve your skills and confidence.
Recently I tried an experiment with a couple of speeches that I had to give over the course of consecutive weekly meetings. I discovered something about the preparation process that had a big affect on my confidence and delivery.
I should add a small disclaimer. I never bring notes of any kind with me when speaking. I find that written notes are a distracting crutch that inevitably leads to an awkward moment of trying to find your place in your notes to remember your next line. Secondly, I am notoriously bad at preparing speeches for my Toastmaster group. I frequently write my speech at 10pm the night before, and then usually finish it up very early in the morning. This being said, I don’t spend a lot of time rehearsing.
The first week I tried the classic preparation process of writing out my speech, every word that I wanted to say. I then worked diligently to commit to memory the six minute speech, focusing on specific lines and transitions. I truly wanted to recite the speech as I had written it. As I awaited my time to speak I scrolled through the speech on my phone, desperately trying to recall the lines. My stomach was turning and I was more apprehensive then I have been about speaking in quite some time.
When I stood in front of the podium and started my speech I could tell what was about to happen. About four lines in I completely blanked out on a sentence. It was at this point that I decided my plan to recite the speech verbatim was never going to happen. In order to get through this speech without letting the audience know what was happening, I reverted to my standby method of freestyle speaking. I made my way through the speech, making a number of the points I had planned to make, though with less colorful language and twists of words.
The final result was a success based on the feedback from my evaluator and the audience notes. Inside, however, I was a mess. I was so disappointed that I was not able to recite a speech that I had written when actively trying to do so. It was frustrating and I didn’t want to feel this way again.
The next week I decided to take a different approach. Knowing that I am far more comfortable delivering a speech where the exact words I use are not completely preordained from the written version, I would adapt my preparation accordingly. True to form, I started working on the speech at about 10pm the night before. However, this time I did not write the speech out word-for-word. Instead I created a detailed outline of the speech, including a few key phrases I wanted to be sure to recite.
The writing process took significantly less time. The rehearsal process was also different. I practiced the speech a couple of times out loud in my car before the meeting (which is at 6:45am). Of course, each time I went through it, the content was a bit different. I was creating transitions and statements on the fly, not simply reading what I had written. It felt quite a bit different to only commit the outline to memory instead of the entire text of the speech.
During the delivery of the speech I found the format to be liberating. I felt confident that I could go through the outline without getting bogged down with specific wording that would clutter my thinking. The freedom could be felt by the audience through my increased use of vocal variety, dramatic pauses, and direct eye contact. The entire experience was so much easier and less stressful.
I walked away from the second speech with definitive proof that the best way to write a speech is with an outline, not in long form. It takes less time to write, less time to remember, and allows for more creativity during delivery. Giving a speech may still be frightening to some, but the preparation doesn’t have to be.