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Talking points

On 13 February the Gib Talks event, based on the TEDx speaking style, takes place in Gibraltar. Tim Luscombe, President of the ProFessional Speaking Association UK and Ireland, considers what goes into a great speech.

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What males a great speech? That’s a question that we are asked all the time, especially by people who are new to speaking but actually it doesn’t hurt to review the answers no matter how experienced you are!

Great speeches have several things in common, but right at the top of the list is how they make you feel. If there is no emotional connection from the speaker to the audience and from the audience to each other, the speech will fall flat. The audience will be distracted, stop paying attention and start checking their smartphones. If it’s a great speech they will be capturing the moments on their phones and sharing them with the world. They will only do that if there is a strong emotional connection.

Making the audience feel great and want to share that experience with their social media friends is fantastic, but it will fall some way short of a great speech if that is all there is. It’s a bit like candyfloss, light and sweet but there’s no substance. Really powerful speeches change the behaviour of the audience, long after the speech is over.  Ask yourself the question “What will they do differently as a result of hearing my speech?” If the answer is nothing, you are at best an entertainer.

Close with a great finish. When you plan your speech you know what you want the audience to feel, and what they are going to do as a result of your speech. Everything else in the speech should build towards the finish.

A musical analogy can help when you structure your speech. You want to use repeating themes and build towards a crescendo to close, but within the speech you may have smaller sections with their own peaks and troughs. Contrast the troughs with the peaks to make them more dramatic.

Words are incredibly powerful, but like notes in a musical composition they have to be used in the right order. There are many tips and tricks to make your words more effective, but a really simple one is to eliminate the words that don’t add value to the speech. The musical composition is not (usually) improved by adding extra random notes!

Open with words that catch the attention of your audience. Rehearse until you can say it in your sleep, so that when you take the stage whatever level of excitement or nervousness you have reached you can still produce your opening. That will buy you time to relax and start to enjoy the moment.

Tell stories – tell your stories – don’t tell other people’s stories. People love to hear stories and the love to know about the speaker, so tell stories about yourself and your experiences. You create the emotional bonds and make your point through stories. A well told story gets repeated and is memorable, so you are having the impact.

Vary your pace and your vocal tone. I often tell new speakers that there is nothing more effective than a well-timed…….pause.  Try it in practice to a camera – what will feel like an eternity to you as you are delivering will be almost unnoticeable when you watch the film. If you don’t vary your vocal tone, you will sound monotonous and send your audience to sleep – or at least to find something more interesting to do! Telling stories will help you vary both pace and tone.

You should have 4 hours of content researched and prepared for every hour of delivery. When you deliver you can choose those sections that are most appropriate and will resonate with your audience.

Professional speakers are often asked to deliver their material in a variety of formats from the 20 minute breakfast seminar through to the half day or full day workshop. A technique to cope with that – and indeed to cope with the situation when the event organiser suddenly tells you the next speaker is running late so can you speak for 40 minutes instead of the planned 20 – is to have the content of your speech organised into blocks or modules that you can bring in or leave out as necessary. 

If you want to see and hear some great talks, check out the TED talks on YouTube. TED started as a conference in 1984 where Technology, Entertainment and Design came together but has spread through the TEDx programme across the world and into almost all walks of life and all topics. Talks on the TEDx and TED are limited to just 18 minutes. Remember when you watch the videos that you don’t have to emulate another speaker. You can learn things from watching, but adapt them to your style and continue to be yourself. Above everything else, have fun when you are on stage!