We all listened to Oprah’s acceptance speech for the Cecil B. de Mille Award? Yes? Good. Did you notice how even though she’s Oprah, and could probably make us cry by reading a takeaway menu backward, she put a ton of work into her speech? And how through that work, she took a celebration of her accomplishments, respected that premise, but turned it into a rallying cry for the forces of good? Next time you speak in public, would you like to be a little more like Oprah?
Look, we’re not gonna teach you in a blog post how to give such a stirring acceptance speech that people ask if you’re running for president. Your speech is almost definitely not as important as Oprah’s, and you are almost definitely not Oprah. But if you care at all about what you’re saying or how it’s received, you should approach it with all the care and thought that Oprah put into hers.
If you have any advance notice that you might be called on to speak, write it before hand. Don’t just “plan it out” in your head. Everything sounds good in your head. You have to actually write or speak it aloud to test it.
Usually, you’ll find your own structure for your speech. Oprah, for example, used this structure:
- Personal story
- Supporting story
Or try this more generic structure:
Writing a speech and delivering it are two separate challenges. If you're not sure where to start with the writing process, use this six-part outline as a guide.Read more
The structure itself isn’t as important as how you connect it. Each part of Oprah’s speech supports the others. Her personal story puts her win in the context of race and gender. Her thank-yous segue into her main message, praising those fighting sexism, and through a story she evokes the intersection of racism and sexism. She calls on her audience to join in this fight, and assures us that we will win it. The whole speech has a logical through-line.
So first, you need to find your core message. It should be the one that you can tell best. Even if you’re just giving a funny little talk at an informal event, find your brand of funny. At the most amateur level, if you want to rip off the style of some famous speaker or comedian, at least rip off someone you love, not someone you think will be popular.
Now make every line of your speech work toward communicating that core message. Your opening shouldn’t just sound cool or make people laugh, it should prepare them for the meat of your speech. Oprah starts with the context of racial and gender progress, because that’s what she’ll be digging into later. It’s an uplifting story, because the overall message is uplifting.
Now let’s get into some details.
If you find yourself doing that movie-montage thing where you keep writing and rejecting your opening, that’s OK, that’s normal, that’s how I write every blog post. You have three options.
- Keep throwing away first lines until one sticks. That’s how they do it in the movies.
- Take each intro to its logical conclusion, until now you have five bad intros but you’re warmed up, and you can rescue bits from one or two of these intros for your new, real intro.
- Start in the middle with some easy part, and come back to the intro later (this is actually the best method but I hate it and refuse it).
For a speech under 30 minutes, use pen and paper for as long as you can. For me, that’s usually one full draft; if you can force yourself to do your revisions longhand, do it. It can stop you from constantly second-guessing yourself.
If the first time you deliver your speech out loud is in front of your actual audience, you screwed up. You have to read your speech out loud to yourself, then to a friend or partner. (This is secretly why people get married.) You’re doing this for two reasons:
You’ll always discover new edits when you read your work aloud. You could even read your very first draft aloud, and combine the editing and reading phases. You could even “write” and edit the speech by improvising it over and over out loud. (But write it down at some point too.)
The first time you read your speech to yourself, you’ll realise that some parts are bad and stupid. Then you will edit them. The second time, you’ll realise that some parts are secretly good, but sound bad and stupid out loud. Then you will edit them.
Once everything sounds good to you, read it to your friend. Ask them for their favourite part, their least favourite part, and the part they bet is good but they didn’t understand. That third part is the most important to work on.
As long as you’re rehearsing, you can keep editing, but if your edits should be getting smaller and more nitpicky. By six to 10 rehearsals in, you probably should only be changing a couple of words here and there.
Even if you’re reading something that was already published elsewhere, you should still edit. What works on the page doesn’t always work out loud. And vice versa! Maybe you overlooked a different piece that works better out loud than on paper. Or maybe you can just cut a few paragraphs that meander. Your piece is a rock song and this is the radio edit.
Your performance is as important as your words. Otherwise you could have just emailed everyone. At a personal event such as a wedding, your presence is actually the most important part.
Each time you deliver your speech, it sounds more natural than the last. Once you have that basic flow down, you can pay attention to the delivery of certain key phrases and words. You can adjust your volume and your speed. (You probably need to slow down.)
If you don’t work on your performance, everyone will know it. You might think a practised performance will seem fake. It won’t; that’s what acting is. And even for a very personal speech, you will want to have your performance planned, so when you break down crying, you aren’t entirely lost. (This planning also helps you from growing desperate if your speech doesn’t go over as well as you’d hoped. It lets you finish with dignity.)
As much as your friend can stand it, do all this performance work in front of them. Their feedback is better than your own. You don’t have to tape yourself or do anything in front of a mirror, unless you want to.
By now, you’re on your way to memorising your speech. Again, you probably aren’t Oprah, so you probably can’t memorise a 10-minute multi-chapter speech on race and gender in America. But you can internalise your speech enough that even if you bring notes, you will not be reading off them but using them as a guide.
Because your audience wants to see your face. They want to hear your voice. They cannot do that when you’re buried in your notes. When your head is down, you’re talking into your chest. When your head is up, you’re talking into the microphone, or you’re projecting your voice.
Memorisation isn’t about slavish devotion to specific words. It’s about having all the words you need, so that you can improvise to your comfort level.
You can go without notes (but if you do, rehearse the whole speech twice on the day of). If you do bring notes, try to fit them on index cards. When your hands shake, index cards don’t wobble as visibly as paper.
Your notes don’t have to be a thorough outline. Maybe they’re just the specific parts you had trouble memorising. They’re a memory aid. Unless this is a reading, you shouldn’t actually be reading them.
Don’t bring your entire speech, word for word, unless you’re doing a reading. The shorter your notes, the less you’ll stare down at them. (If you tried but just couldn’t memorise a single line, that’s OK, bring your entire speech and everyone will know you did your best.)
Do not read your speech off your phone. Print it out or write it down. Jesus.
Do all that good public speaking stuff
Take your time. Have confidence in your speech. Don’t apologise for any lines that flop, or for any mistakes (but you can apologise a little for crying, that’s cute).
Pick three people to keep making eye contact with:
- A close friend, or the recipient of your speech, if it’s a toast
- Someone who looks like they’re enjoying this
- Someone in the back
If it isn’t self-evident when the speech is over, say “Thank you.” If there’s applause, stand there for three to 10 seconds of it, but start leaving while they’re still clapping. The host or the next speech-giver should take your place before the applause has fully faded away.