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Five Things to Avoid When Making a Speech

By: Dr Gareth Evans - Updated: 24 Oct 2012 | comments*Discuss
Speech Speech-making Things To Avoid

So, you’ve been asked to make that speech and you’ve said you’ll do it.

Great, but before you even begin to gather together all your thoughts and stories – and long before you ever start to craft them into the glitteringly amazing ‘killer’ speech you know you’re going to come up with – there’s something you really need to know. Well, five things, actually – the five things that you positively, absolutely must avoid.

Cast your mind back over any really bad speech you’ve ever been forced to sit through yourself and you’ll recognise them. Somewhere in the middle of all the speaker’s good intention, spoiling the sentences and strangling the sense, you’ll find at least one or two of this ‘infamous five’ will be lurking. If you’re going to give yourself any chance of delivering the sort of speech you’re really capable of, you need to be able to recognise this particular bunch of speaker’s deadly sins.

So, have a read through our light-hearted guide to the dangers they pose to otherwise wonderful speeches – and then avoid them like the plague!

1. Trying Too Hard

We’ve all listened to speakers who seem to think that a great speech needs some kind of special ‘voice’ to deliver it – and I don’t mean doing an impression of Donald Duck!

More often than not, struggling to sound ‘posh’ or ‘clever’ simply ends up producing a speech that’s full of bizarre and flowery language that really doesn’t mean a lot to anyone and makes the speaker sound either horribly pompous or a bit of an idiot – or possibly both!

Stephen Fry quotes the wonderful example of “the silver ribbon of time that is the Colorado River” – point made?

Simply be yourself and say it just like you normally would and you’ll be fine; it’s probably why they asked you in the first place.

2. Unfunny Humour

Oh Lord, save us from the speakers who think their true calling is to be stand-up comedians – especially now they’ve been given the microphone and a captive audience! Well, unless, of course, they really are funny, but let’s face it very few of us are as side-splittingly hilarious in the flesh as our imaginary routines to the bathroom mirror would have us believe.

Humour can be very effective in a speech and a gently funny story is always appropriate, even on the saddest of occasions, but that’s not a licence for cheap laughs, smutty gags or an endless stream of knock-knock jokes – at least not often. To carry it off properly, you need to know your audience well, make sure you’re not going to offend anyone and then don’t muck up your delivery.

The bottom line is, if you know you’re not a naturally funny person, refer to 1 above – and don’t try too hard!

3. Not Being Well Enough Prepared

Almost nobody can deliver a good speech without practising it first – and that includes professional speakers (and even those who could, wouldn’t ever dream of doing it). You’ll have seen the tell-tale signs; re-reading the end of a sentence, because the way it came out the first time round didn’t make any sense; the tongue-tied mess made of unfamiliar words or names; suddenly remembering that there’s a bit more over the page.

It’s excruciating to sit through and it’s mortifying to do; so don’t. Make sure you’re really well prepared – and then go and practise it some more. You’ll be so glad you did.

4. Relying On Your Memory

If you’ve ever noticed how apparently quite bright contestants on TV quiz shows can suddenly seem to become so stultifyingly dim, then you’ve got a pretty good idea of how useless even the best of memories can be, in times of stress.

You may have practised your speech until you can literally do it in your sleep (and if you haven’t, go back and read section 3 again) but you can almost guarantee that on the day, your mind will go blank at precisely the same moment that you stand up to speak. Do yourself a favour – keep a copy with you and write the main points on some cue cards; it’s like insurance – or an umbrella – if you’ve got it, you’ll probably never need it.

5. Boring Your Audience To Death!

There’s an old maxim – and a good one – about speech-making that simply says, “stand up, speak up, shut up.” As advice goes, it’s hard to beat.

Of all of the things to avoid, droning interminably on and on, boring your audience to death has got to be the single most important. If you spot the signs – glazed eyes, shuffling seats, that sort of thing – quickly start to wrap things up, or face the ultimate humiliation of hearing the snoring start. Just don’t do it – not ever. You’ll never live down the shame!

Between them, these five have ruined many a speech and reduced many a speaker to a gibbering wreck, but with a bit of care they can be kept under control. It’s just like weeding really; if you deal with them before they get a chance to take root, everything will be fine.

Enjoy making that speech!

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