How To Deliver a Speech: You’ve Got Options

Deliver a speech

Standing all alone behind the lectern can be a lonely place. It’s understandable that a nice, fat stack of papers – aka your script – offers a sense of protection and security. But shields are barriers. As a presenter, you want to deliver a speech that fosters, rather than hinders, your connection with the audience. Fortunately, you have options.

How you choose to deliver a speech should be a reflection of who you are and who you are addressing; your message and the manner in which you want to convey it; why you are delivering it; and the logistics of where you are presenting it.

For instance, a more seasoned speaker might grab for a pile of notes. Another could opt for a script-and-notes combo. There’s always the teleprompter. Some presenters wax extemporaneously with nary a note or script in sight.

Effective public speakers may vary in their delivery, but they all begin with this question:

“What’s most important to me: The precision of my words, or my connection with my audience?”

The final decision needs to be one that works for you. We give you five options. Once you have properly calibrated that precision/connection balance, determine the option that best fits the ratio.

5 Ways to Deliver a Speech

Most of the time, when we work with our public speaking clients, they choose connection over precision, which naturally points them to some options that work better than others. Connection calls for a more conversational approach, something that can be difficult to approximate with a formal speech.

When you opt for precision, you put a premium on the words you use and the way you express them. When you choose connection, you put a premium on the bond you form with the audience and the way you interact with them. Imagine a scale that offers a range from precision to connection. You may prefer precise delivery, but your talk would benefit from a more informal approach. So, you need to find the notch that most closely works for you.

There are other factors to consider. They include:

  • Presentation format (panel versus stand-alone speaker)
  • Audience expectations
  • Formal vs. informal occasion

In the past, the size of the audience and the formality (or informality) of the occasion made the decision of how to deliver a speech a bit easier. The more formal the event, the more likely you arrived at the lectern with a script in hand. But the advent of TED Talks and similar presentation showcases have given rise to more carefully prepared, but casually delivered events.

The five methods that follow span a casual to a more circumscribed approach – the conversational to the formal. For each, we offer techniques on how to prepare, practice, and present.

Remember, you have options.

Rope bow on finger pointing up on background

Speaking from Memory

Have you ever left a presentation and wondered: “How did she just do that?” From beginning to end, words flowed, slides were projected, and questions were answered without a single crib note or visual reminder in sight. A presenter who delivers from memory while sounding conversational is indeed impressive and may be more likely to gain and keep the attention of her audience.

Here are a few factors to consider when choosing this option:

Prepare – The speaker who simply memorizes every word could come across as stilted as the speaker who simply reads from a script. A presenter who successfully speaks from memory is more about delivering a talk without notes.  This is where your preparation is crucial. Rather than merely memorizing your material, you should be internalizing it.

Practice – The process to internalize works like this:

  • Memorize keywords that will help you to internalize your messages. For instance, if you talk has three points, you might remember a keyword for each section. You can employ as many mental tricks as are necessary, such as visualization (which studies have found help memory recall), a mnemonic device, or an acronym.
  • If you have enough time for preparation, you could commit all the words to memory and still make it look effortless. However, even as we offer this option, we follow with important caveats. Few speakers have such a luxury of time, nor can they always do this well. In reality, the benefits of this option are often outstripped by the downsides of appearing too scripted.
  • Outline your speech with a distinct narrative or chronological structure that naturally flows from a beginning to a logical conclusion. These are often the easiest to deliver without notes.

Present – Some of the specific words you use during your talk may be exactly as you rehearsed them – particularly key takeaway points, quotes, or transitions – but internalizing your talk means that you are so familiar with the material that you may deviate from your rehearsed script and deliver the same point with different words.

One last thought: While speaking from memory can indeed lead to a memorable presentation, it is not the only option that results in an impressive delivery. Often, it’s unnecessary, as other methods can achieve a similar result with less preparation time.

Working from Notes

Turn right signal on country roadIf you find yourself at the intersection of formal structure and conversational tone, a good option is working from notes. This approach gives you the freedom of extemporaneous moments with the security of a script – if you could even call it that. You work from a bulleted list or outline that offers a roadmap from beginning to end.

Here are a few tips:

Prepare – Notes typically take the form of bulleted lists or outlines, but can also include a few verbatim passages for quotes, excerpts, or transitions. Here’s how to make this work:

  • Start with a script.
  • Boil it down to words that trigger your memory.
  • Print your notes in a large font on paper or notecards.
  • Make sure to number the pages, in case they become out of order on speech day. No need for a manic reshuffling.

Practice – When working with notes, practice by placing them atop a table or stool. Use this time to check with organizers that you have a landing for those notes and then refine your method:

Do you return to them before each main point? Or, do you glance at them in the beginning and return in the end? Do you need to refer to them more often?

Go for whatever method provides for optimum movement and energy, as well as confidence.

Present – With those notes sitting nicely atop a small table, you have a home base to which you can return. Wander, roam, and be your energetic self. One of the benefits of using notes is the automatic recall feature. Say you are wrapping up your first point and your mind draws a blank on the second. Wring all that juice out of the first point, as you slowly make your way back to the table. Then, become quiet, calmly glance down, spot the next memory trigger, and look up. Once you have regained eye contact, launch into that second section.

Speaking from a Script with ‘Holes’

You wouldn’t want someone to poke a hole in your theory, logic, or hypothesis, but when it comes to public speaking, a few gaps in your script can be a good thing. This is where you might interject some extemporaneous, or “off-the-cuff,” comments. When you deliver a speech in this manner, you can place gaps in your introductions, open, main body, close, or all of these sections. The one theme that ties them together is that they are sincere and authentic statements, which highlight your personality and passions before you dive back again into the sea of prepared comments.

Let’s dig in:

Business man signing documents at deskPrepare – It all begins with your script. As opposed to boiling it down as you did with the previous approach, your script largely stays intact. You add notes that indicate where you plan on straying with purpose. Ideally, you find gaps where a dash of personalization will do the presentation good. Think of it as alterations that make for a better fit.

Practice – Transitions between scripted and extemporaneous sections can occasionally sound clunky to the audience. Pay attention to the shift, so that it does not sound abrupt. You want the audience to pick up on the change, but attempt to make it as seamless as possible. On the script itself note the holes with cues, such as “A warm hello,” or “Tell the story of my first job.”

Present – Open your speech for a minute or two without a formal text. Yes, this is the time for that “warm hello.” During your practice sessions, indicate where there are holes. As an example, you might aim for one at the open, in the middle, and during the close.

Following a teleprompter

If all goes as planned, when you use a teleprompter, it can be a bit like magic. It appears as if you have memorized your entire speech, leaving you free to wax poetic as you connect with the crowds. All your words just roll along two small, thin panes of glass. It’s like a warm, digital security blanket. What could go wrong?

Several things could. Reading from a teleprompter can be difficult. You must keep up with the scrolling sentences, even as you attempt to sound as if you are not reading from a script. It also can be challenging to develop a connection with the audience. Concentrating on the two panes that flank you may tie up the brain power that you need to build rapport with the audience.

However, teleprompters can be effective during high-stakes moments when forging a connection with a live audience is less crucial than reaching a much broader one. For instance, this method would work well if a top banking executive was giving a speech to a small group of journalists in London, but was live-streaming it to financial journalists all over the world.

The techniques for how to deliver a speech from memory, notes, and script with “holes,” are applicable here. However, there are some additional considerations to apply:

Prepare – Begin by creating a script, a bulleted list, or an outline of your presentation. You also could employ a hybrid approach – a mix of bullets and several scripted sections. Mark your script with your extemporaneous pauses, and make sure they are reflected in the version that rolls along the teleprompter.

Traffic light with yellow light onPractice – This is a verbal treadmill and pace matters. If the words scroll by too fast, you may fall behind or become flustered. If they are too slow, the audience may wonder what’s sapped your energy. Here’s how to stay on pace:

  • You establish the pace. Work with the teleprompter operator in advance to establish a comfortable flow.
  • Practice until you and the operator are in sync.
  • Adjust the font size and panel height to your liking.

If you are planning to add a few of those extemporaneous “holes” mentioned earlier, mark the script and make sure your operator knows where they are. You don’t want to get stuck regaling the crowd with a personal anecdote only to see your lines slip into the sunset.

Present – Arrive early to make sure equipment is running smoothly. A test run with the operator will reveal any issues with your synchronicity. Then, relax. The point of a teleprompter is to make it look as if you are not reading from a teleprompter. So, be energetic, use gestures, and keep the real script handy in case of technical glitches.

Presenting with a Script

It may surprise you that presenting with a script is one of the options. There are instances, however, when this option is the best way to deliver a speech. Precise delivery may work best at more formal occasions, such as commencement speeches, official proclamations, or keynote addresses.

Still, if you follow a script, aim for conversational engagement, rather than linguistic perfection. Make it your mantra, which will help to use less formal language, too. Your words are only tethered to the page if you let them be. Give them flight and freedom with authentic expression and a warm delivery.

Here are some additional tips:

Prepare – A script need not be a parched piece of parchment. Give those words some juice by starting the whole process with your actual voice. Begin your speech by recording your main thoughts, as if you are talking to a friend – be light and conversational. When you go to write your script, use your best recorded moments. The process will infuse your script with less formal language. That’s good! Consider these thoughts the seeds from which the rest of your script will grow.

You also could:

  • Keep sentences short.
  • Try to avoid acronyms and concepts that require elaborate definitions. Try to boil abstract concepts to concrete illustrations.
  • Number your pages.
  • Use an oversized font.

Hand holding red pen to correct proofreading paper

Practice – To strike the right tone, experiment with pace, volume, and tone. Personal stories might be told at a slower pace, challenges can be delivered with a more emphatic tone. Mark up that script. Include pauses and other nonverbal cues, too. While it may be impossible to keep 100 percent eye contact with the audience, that’s the number you want to work toward. The idea is to take a quick glance at what comes next, look up, and only begin talking when you have reestablished eye contact.

Present – As you face your audience, think of your script less like an anchor and more like a sail. You want these words to catch flight and flow. Get gesticulating! Studies have found that gestures help speakers to retrieve words and speak more easily.

A proper delivery

The question of how to deliver a speech is among the biggest decisions a speaker faces prior to the talk. The vessel in which you carry your message to market is an important consideration. So, always remember, your answer actually begins with a question:

“What’s most important to me: The precision of my words, or my connection with my audience?”