Speaking skills

I'd find it much easier to walk on stage and play a part, than walk on in front of an audience and make a speech as myself.

Ewan McGregor, actor and UNICEF Ambassador

The idea of presenting a speech makes almost everyone really nervous, but some people manage to make speeches every day as part of their jobs.

You might also notice that some speakers are more interesting to listen to than others. It is not necessarily what they say that keeps you interested, but often how they say it.

Tips for making successful speeches

  • Volume - Your listeners will switch off if they can't hear you. Use a clear but natural sounding voice, and always check if your audience can hear you. You could ask "Can everyone hear me at the back?"
  • Pace - If you speak too quickly, you won't be clear. Even though you know what you are saying, remember that it’s the first time your audience will have heard it. You need to give them time to follow and digest your words, as well as the ideas and attitudes they communicate. If you speak too slowly, however, your audience is likely to go to sleep! Vary your pace, using it to create useful effects - and use dramatic pauses where appropriate. Remember that a two second pause might seem an eternity to you as the speaker – yet it will seem entirely natural, and indeed welcome, to your audience.
  • Pitch and tone - If you speak in monotone your audience will quickly lose interest. Speak as naturally as your nerves will allow, and be sure to vary the pitch and tone of your voice to communicate effectively your feelings and attitude.
  • Facial expression - Body language will bring your words to life and make them more interesting for your audience. Remember – if you don't look like you're interested, your audience won't be either.
  • Gesture and movement - Again, more body language, but keep it natural: if you stand like a statue, you won't be very interesting to watch or listen to. On the other hand, too much arm flapping and leg hopping will distract your audience from the point you're trying to make.
  • Visuals aids - Use them, but use them effectively. They need to be big enough to see and to be simple enough to understand quickly. Don't use a PowerPoint and simply read it – use the PowerPoint to add to, rather than replace your speech.
  • Vocabulary - Use Standard English but don’t be too formal. Choose words that are interesting, descriptive and appropriate to your audience. Don't baffle your audience with jargon or slang or lots of big words that are too difficult for anyone else to understand. A speech isn’t an occasion to show off, but to involve and interest your audience.
  • Grammar - This refers to the style of sentences you use. It’s likely to be appropriate to your audience and task to use Standard English but, as always, you need to match your style to your context, audience and purpose. As with writing, vary the length and type of sentences you use – and remember, an ultra-short sentence can have a great deal of impact. Remember that Spoken English is very different from written English and doesn’t tend to use long complex sentences. Speech usually relies on shorter snappier sounding sentences to keep the style lively and interesting. Remember, you don't have to be too formal or put on a special accent - just speak in a natural sounding way that puts you and your audience at ease.

Getting over nerves

A person following the four steps on how to overcome nerves with the labels ‘Familiarise’, ‘Prepare’, ‘Practice’ and ‘Relax and enjoy’

Most people feel nervous when speaking formally in front of other people – and even the thought of doing so can be upsetting. Here are some tips to help you cope with that natural sense of nervousness:

  • Try to speak about a topic you already know well and write the speech out in full, reading it through several times. This will help you gain confidence in the content.
  • Prepare small 'cue cards' and use these to note down, in order, nothing more than the key points of your speech. Avoid writing full sentences – just use key words that remind you of what you will need to say. It can help to have the words from the next cue card visible, too, so you don’t move on too far, too soon.
  • If you’ve written out and read your speech a few times, you should be familiar with it so these key words will come more easily, and they’ll create a natural and easy to remember sequence or structure. Avoid the temptation to take the full speech in with you or you’ll be too easily tempted to read it rather than speak it.