Archive for the ‘Speeches’ Category

“Tonight I’m going to talk to you about the issue of aphids on roses.”

Woo hoo! How exciting is that? Pardon me while I snooze.

If you’re working through your Toastmaster Competent  Communicator manual you’ll find that the first eight projects teach you the basics of putting together a strong speech. The choice of topic is up  to you. Most new speakers will choose an informational speech because it is the most straightforward. They select a topic they know  quite a lot about and they share that information.

With any luck their enthusiasm for the topic carries them along. The audience picks up on the enthusiasm and takes pleasure from that as well as appreciating the information that normally would not have come their way

But once you run out of that newness and enthusiasm the informational speech can become flat, boring and, in a word, deadly. Here are some ideas to help lift it out of its coffin.

  • Fire up the title. “The problem of aphids” isn’t going to excite the group. Put some thought into writing a title that is interesting and intriguing. A title that will have your audience listening to discover what your speech is all about. If you set them up  to be interested they might just stay interested throughout. What about “Secrets of an Aphid Killer” or “My fight with the Little Green Men”?
  • Write your own introduction. Don’t rely on the Toastmaster to come up with something. Give him/her exactly what you want them to say. Writing a speech introduction is a skill in itself. Practice it each time you speak. Don’t make it a list of honors that have come your way, just name the most important one to establish your credibility. Slip some humor in there. If you’re speaking in front of your usual club they know you – you don’t need much biographical material. Your introduction should establish a high level of interest and intrigue in your topic so your audience will be eager to hear what you have to say.
  • Open strongly. A self deprecating funny story. An amazing fact. And if you can add even more intrigue to lead into the informational part, do that.
  • Remember that facts are speech killers. OK, they don’t have to be speech killers, but that’s often what happens. Don’t try to pile on as many facts as you can fit into seven minutes. Pick about three important ones and wrap them in context (for better understanding) and in stories so they will be remembered. Your audience does not need to know every single fact about aphids. They would like to hear your stories about them, they’d like to hear about the ridiculous lengths you have been to (tiptoeing out there in your pajamas in the middle of the night with the spray can). Give them what they are hoping to hear.
  • Wrap it up strongly with a couple of dynamic sentences that will give your audience a sense of completion and satisfaction.

The informational speech is one where vocal variety and body language is especially important. Factual information or steps in a process can come out flat and monotonous. This is where your body and your voice need to take up the slack.

You might not be able to turn your ‘problem with aphids’ into a song and dance act, but you could aim in that direction.

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Ever had to speak in front of a small audience?

This can happen in Toastmasters, especially in the summer time when people are on holiday. But still, those of us who consider ourselves speakers put time and effort into preparing a speech. Then we stand up in front of six or eight people.

Often they are the same faces – the regulars, not a new or unfamiliar face in the bunch. Sometimes they scatter themselves around the available space. Sometimes the acoustics are such that your voice echoes slightly, and this adds to your discomfort. It can be discouraging.

You ask yourself “Why did I bother? Why did I put all this time and effort into a speech for these few people?”

There are those who would say that if there was anyone who was meant to hear your message they will be there. That could be true. Certainly, if anyone in that small group  learns or gains a new perspective from what you presented, then it’s time well spent.

Usually I say that you, the speaker, should consider the audience and forget about yourself. In this instance, though, it looks to me like the opposite. This is the time for you to really shine as a speaker. It’s easy enough to be full of energy and motivation in front of a good-sized group.  It’s not so easy in front of a handful of regulars. Do it anyway.

This is the time to reach down and dredge up every drop of energy and enthusiasm you possess. This is the time to deliver as if you had 200 avid supporters in front of you. This is the time you grow as a speaker, because if you can face this group and be enthusiastic, you can deliver a strong speech anywhere. This is tough. This is where you ‘pay your dues’.

This is also where you can experiment as a speaker – try something new that you’ve been a bit reluctant to try in front of a larger group. If it works, great! You can add it to your collection of useful techniques. If it doesn’t work, or it needs tweaking to be more successful, well, only a few people saw the experimental prototype.

Don’t look on a small Toastmaster audience as being less than ideal. It’s just different. It’s a different type of learning. You’re growing in a different way.

This is your opportunity to stand up like the accomplished, polished speaker you are. Give all six people the best experience you can – that’s how you make it a good and useful experience for yourself.

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The Plastic Speech

Have you ever heard someone say “It was a good enough speech, but it was too plastic.”

In my part of the world that’s what we call a speech that has all the right ingredients but somehow doesn’t quite hit home the way a great speech would. Maybe you call it something different in your part of the world, but I’m sure you know what I mean.

We’re told that a good speech for a contest should be both inspirational and motivational. It should have humour, emotion, a story, a strong opening and conclusion. Indeed it should have all those things. If it is strong in all those areas it will likely get you to the contest at the Division or District level within Toastmasters.

Maybe as you wrote it you checked off all the items on the back of the judging sheet. Yep, I got this, and this and this. Check!

But then there’s that vague criterion “effect on the audience”. If you’ve done several speeches you’ll know that different audiences react in different ways. Some laugh like crazy at lines you didn’t think were funny. Others sit straight-faced through your carefully crafted humour – the part that had other audiences rolling in the aisles. Who knows what effect it will have on this particular audience?

True, a savvy speaker has learned skills of getting his message, his humour and emotion across to an audience in ways that a newer speaker has not yet imagined. But no amount of savvy rescues a plastic speech.

A plastic speech is one that is done for effect rather than for the honest desire to convey a specific message. The speaker has started out with the one thought, “What will win the contest?” Every choice he or she makes supports that one thought.

– The message? The one likeliest to win the contest.

– The emotion? To the extent and depth that is that likeliest to win the contest.

– The call to action? The one likeliest to win the contest.

The overall result? A plastic speech. The whole thing is based on a false premise. Rather than basing speech construction on the idea “How can I best convey this important message to my audience?” it has been based on “How can I win the contest?”

The audience might not be able to explain the difference but they can feel it, they can sense it. At the higher levels of competition, the more experienced judges know an honestly felt speech when they hear it just as an experienced car buyer knows the difference between leather seats and almost-as-good-as-leather seats made of plastic. An experienced judge can tell the difference between a message from the heart and a plastic speech that checks off all the requirements.

By all means develop your message-from-the-heart with all the skill and knowledge and experience you can muster. Remember that it has to beat out that clever plastic speech. But base the foundation of this speech, like all your other speeches, on your true message not on your desire for a trophy.

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Make Them Listen!

Have you ever given a speech on a topic you thought  was very important?

Maybe you wanted to increase interest in a cause that’s important to you. Maybe you did a lot of research and you want to give your audiences the benefit of this.

It doesn’t matter what you want. Each member of the audience has an agenda of their own. You will only cut through their personal thoughts and reach the holy grail of their full attention if you grab their interest. The important topic, the research, your perception of your speech value count for little until each person chooses to give you their best attention.

When I started speaking I regarded my message as the meat of my speech. With some reluctance I wrapped it in a few stories and bright little details, like putting a bit of gift wrap and a bow on a birthday gift. I thought the speech, like the gift, was what mattered.

What really matters is that each member of the audience listens with their best attention. The most important message in the world is of no value if it floats from your mouth, through the ether and out the back door with no-one giving it their intelligent attention.

Thumping the podium only carries your message so far. Standing there like a teacher quoting passages from the latest guru doesn’t cut through the static. Referring to all your research is only boring (other people don’t want to have to suffer for your research).

Two things get people listening:

  • appealing to their experiences and concerns
  • stories in which they quickly identify with the main character (usually you because many of the best speech stories are personal)

Some speakers start their speech with that common “Have you ever…?” question. Having asked this they go on their merry way assuming the answer validates their speech and their topic. Too often the question is designed to elicit a common answer from everyone (“Have you ever been late for work?” “Have you ever taken the wrong exit from the freeway?”)

Almost everyone will answer ‘yes’ but the question and its answer have little deep resonance for the audience. After the ‘yes’ they fall back to their semi-comatose state.

The question should resonate (“Have you ever had to deny a child something they really wanted because you could not afford it?”) You run the risk that not everyone in your audience will answer ‘yes’.  On the other hand, the question gets everyone thinking – and thinking in the direction you want their thoughts to go.

Once you get into your speech you make a small number of points and illustrate them with the best stories you can find. Not any old stories, or the one that slayed them back at the pub. Finding your perfect stories and building perfect foci into your stories is where your research should concentrate.

Your story work should be invisible. No-one but you will know how much time you took polishing the words and body language to make your message reach down into the subconscious.

Your task is to make your speech the ideal vehicle to carry your message. Success is when people don’t remember your speech but they do carry your message away. They remember it for a long time and they tell others. What more could you ask?


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Speeches? Why?

When we start out in Toastmasters we write speeches so that we can learn to be better speakers. Each project teaches one of the skills of speaking and each speech we present is a learning experience for us.

Then what?

For those ten speeches it is all about the speaker. We learn to research, to get to the point etc. In the process we hope to entertain or educate our audience but in truth, it’s all about our own learning. It’s all about me the speaker.

Now, it’s a given that learning is a life-long process and we will never know all there is to know about speaking. But the steep leaning curve is behind us and we now know the basics. So why do we keep going?

1. We want to reveal a situation or a need. “Let me tell you about maternal deaths in sub-Saharan Africa”

2. We want to teach. I can teach you how best to use stories in a speech.

3. We want to motivate. By applying this simple mantra you can live a more fulfilling life.

4. We want to inspire. “Let me tell you how I overcame my problems and you can too!”

5. We want to entertain or amuse the audience.

Did you notice how each of these started with “We want…”?

If the audience has paid money to hear your ideas on the topic you can assume that what they want is somewhat in line with what you want to provide. If not, if it’s your Toastmaster club members giving you 5 – 7 (or more) minutes of their time, shouldn’t you be giving thought to what they want?

Suppose your topic is raising chihuahuas or growing miniature roses. How many of your audience came to learn about dogs or flowers? Not many. They came hoping to have an interesting or entertaining experience. How much time are you giving to the entertaining experience aspect, and how much to cramming more and more facts into the speech?

Are you giving them what they are hoping for? Are you speaking for the audience or are you speaking for yourself?

Are you writing the speech for you (I want to…) or for your audience?


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First, I want to welcome someone new to the blog – a reader from the 130th country. That’s right. This blog is read in 130 countries. It’s a milestone for me and it makes me very happy.

My 130th country is Angola. I treated myself to a little geography lesson and I now know that Angola is a republic, formerly a Portuguese colony, on the west coast of Africa. Most Angolans are Christian and speak Portuguese. The capital is the port of Luanda and the country has much mineral wealth, largely untapped. Thank you, Wikipedia.

Now – matching actions to words. We’ve all seen new speakers doing something like saying “I was so sad and depressed” but saying it with a smile on their face. Clearly the smile and the words don’t match. To be taken seriously as a speaker your actions must match your words.

But it isn’t always as simple as it sounds. Let’s say you are still nervous when you stand up to speak and the tension shows in your shoulders. But you’re speaking about your vacation and your words are “I was relaxing on the warm sand, with palm trees shading…”  Understand that there is a dissonance for your audience and do whatever you can – breathing, relaxation exercises – to reduce it.

Or, maybe you are giving a technical presentation and you want to appear knowledgeable, competent, in control. You’d better be 100% certain of your visual aids so your computer or projector, or screen don’t let you down. Nothing says incompetent better than a memory stick that doesn’t work with the projector, or a screen that won’t roll smoothly into position. No point blaming Fred, who was supposed to set it all up for you – it’s you who gets to wear the responsibility.

Your actions start before you walk in front of the group. Stand up a few moments ahead of time. Stand tall, loosen your shoulders, take some deep breaths. When you move forward, move with as much grace and confidence as you can muster. Still standing straight, proud chest,  give your audience a smile that says you can’t wait to get started.

Whether your presentation is technical, persuasive, inspirational or a story your audience will remember it better if what they see matches what they hear. You’ve got the words they will hear organized to your satisfaction. Your rehearsal or practice time is where organize what they will see.

Rehearsal time is not only for drumming the words into your brain, it is for making sure your whole body, especially your face, is totally in sync with the words that will be coming out of your mouth. It’s not about body language and gestures per se, it’s about total consistency. It’s about bonding two of the five senses in order to have your message fully received on more than one level. It’s about making your message stick.

Can you add more than two senses? Maybe, depending on the message. As speakers we rely on ‘what you hear is what you get’. Add in ‘what you see is what you get’ and you raise your chances of being truly heard.

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You would like your contest speech to be better than all the others. Best speech wins! Try these ideas to make yours a winning speech:

  1. Read the back of the judging form to see what the judges are looking for. Then make sure you’ve got all those points covered.
  2. Make sure you know what your theme is. Write it in one sentence. Then develop it consistently throughout.
  3. Include at least one point of humour. More than one is good.  Seeing an audience laugh reassures the judges that this speech is  coning across well
  4. Give the emotions a workout. Whether it’s fear, sadness or love make the audience feel your words
  5. Include stories. Of course. Goes without saying.
  6. You may need facts and data to support your theme. These play a supporting role, they don’t take over the spotlight.
  7. A strong speech changes the thinking of the audience or adds to it in some way. Again, in one sentence, write down the change in thinking or addition to thinking you are hoping to achieve. Then go through your speech to see if there is a better way to achieve this.
  8. Go through the speech marking all the verbs. Then spice them up; make them more action-oriented so you write in movement for yourself.
  9. Strengthen your opening and your closing. Make sure the closing reflects the opening.

Good luck in the contest! May this be the best speech in the contest and the basis for better and better speeches in your future.

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The Take Away

No, this isn’t about food – it’s about what your audience will take away from your speech.

The purpose of a speech is to give the audience something. It could be:

  • information
  • pleasure
  • motivation
  • inspiration

As you are planning your speech ask yourself, “What do I want my audience to take away from this?”

Remember that our memories are frail things. With the best of intentions we only remember a little bit of what we hear. If you start of with the mind-set “I’m going to teach them all about my topic,” you’ll probably overload them. They will only remember a few things so select the important facets carefully and teach those few points well.

Which means adding stories. You set off with an overall purpose. You select a few major points. You add a story for each.

Better still, you select the stories and then fit in a point for each. This works for all types of speeches. Good stories are the backbone of your speeches and the carriers of meaning.

It’s a funny thing about audiences – they sense your intention. If you intend to teach them all about a topic they seem to give up trying to catch on to everything. You need to focus your message on their behalf.

In effect you’re saying “This is the important stuff. I’ve chosen it for you and I’m going to give it clear dimensions by illustrating it with stories.”

The audience appreciates that you have done the work of selecting the important stuff. It means that one task has been done for them. You have sorted out the best. They don’t have to decide what to take away from your speech; you’ve done that work for them.

Selecting the really important stuff from the just ordinary important stuff is not necessarily easy but it’s part of the process of speech preparation. Having clarity of purpose  makes not only your preparation clearer and more direct, it makes the whole presentation clearer to your audience.  It avoids the puzzled frowns and people muttering “What was that about?”

Understanding your purpose and knowing what you want your listeners to take away is the heart of effective communication.

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The Bait and the Hook

Your first task as a speaker is to cut through the scattered thoughts and (possibly) mental laziness of your listeners. Your job is to gather them up from wherever they are mentally and get them listening to your thoughts and ideas. Think of it as like fishing. You need bait and a hook.


The speaker’s bait is the title. This week I heard a speech about the importance of memories. I’ve heard similar speeches before and I could have tuned out right away. But the speaker did not use the obvious, easy title “Memories”; he titled his speech “My Personal PVR”. We all tuned in to find out what this speech could possibly be about. It was great bait – all the fishes bit.

Your title should carry impact and suggest benefits. Its job is to fascinate, reveal just a little and hide a lot. It whets the appetite and makes people listen for more.

Try for a title that  will intrigue, maybe explain,  be relevant to topic, be short, catchy, and perhaps have a double meaning

A few ideas:

  •  Word play or rhyming. “Up the Wrong Tree”, “The Cat in the Hat”
  • Alliteration. “From Chump to Champ”
  • One, two, punch it up.  “Money, morals and mending socks”.
  • Use or bend a common phrase “Nightmare before Christmas”, “Last Tango in Halifax”
  • Adapt a song or movie title

A colourful, perhaps current title, that still refers to your subject matter, is irresistible bait. Spend time on it – don’t bore people before you even start

Leave the selection of a title to the end of your preparation,, when you know what you’re doing with the speech. Otherwise your great title could turn out to be irrelevant. And irrelevant is not good bait.


OPEN STRONG. This is the hook to connect to audience The purpose of the opening is to establish a connection with the audience. It is also the hook, offering intriguing possibilities. It is the shop  window, suggesting delights ahead. It breaks the mental ice, It must cut through mental distractions and draws your audience towards you and your theme.

It also frames your speech – it starts to narrow your topic down to specifics. If you are speaking about memories, you show the specific angle you are going to take, and if you spice it up you pull the audience closer. By lightly comparing a PVR with the ability to call on many memories the speaker has told his audience that he is going to have fun with the topic, not load us down with information about memories.

Ideas for openings

  • Put a question in the minds of the audience, one that will resonate with this group of people. “Can YOU imagine…(how I felt when….”). “How would you feel if…? Notice that these questions lead to an emotional response. They are not closed ended questions that can be answered yes or no, or with a lump of data.
  • A story, a quote, or a question/story hook up. “Have you ever…? I’ll never forget the first time I…it was like this…”
  • One of the best openings I’ve ever heard was a simple, slow “Her name was Mary.” Then the speaker used a long pause while we all wondered who Mary was, why she was important, why we should care. He followed up with a simple story, leading into his theme.

Your opening frames your speech. It helps you with the organization and selection of sub-topics and illustrations. It focuses the audience exactly as you want them focused

Your opening has to pull a lot of freight so put a lot of care into crafting it.

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An Unpopular Opinion

Have you ever tried to persuade an audience of something that they are almost shocked to hear about. Popular opinion within this group says one thing and you are trying to persuade them of the opposite. Let’s say you are an environmentalist talking about a proposed oil pipeline to a group of business people. Or the reverse, a business person addressing the same topic to a group of environmentalists.

How do you go about this? It’s one thing trying to give them more information about something they already believe, or trying to advance their thinking a little further along they way it is already going. But trying to reverse, to completely change their thinking is much harder.

You need to bring your persuasive skill to the podium. Not your logical skills and not your passion. Don’t set off with a mind set of “I’m right. You people are wrong!”

It’s unlikely that you will completely change minds with one speech. At best you might soften their position and cause them to look into the topic more carefully.

The basic speech structure is similar to any informational or persuasive speech. Select a small number (three is good) of the strongest points. Find good research to back them up and tell stories to drive the points home and give them a human dimension.

A few don’ts:

  • Don’t try to make lots of points
  • Don’t omit the stories
  • Don’t point out to the audience how wrong they are, and definitely not how stupid or blind they are for thinking that way
  • Don’t use a tone that is even remotely defensive or hostile
  • Don’t expect that your speech will immediately convert them to your way of thinking.

To persuade people to cross the great divide, even part way, requires that you respect your audience’s thoughts as you hope they will respect yours. This will reflect in your voice, that your tone is warm and friendly and betrays no hint of ‘I know better than you do’.

Your thinking will reflect in your word choice too. Avoid any emotionally loaded words, or words that betray signs of prejudiced thought. Even simple words like ‘big’ can be loaded, as in ‘big oil companies’ or ‘big drug companies’.

Make sure you research is thorough and from respected sources. “One university professor says” will not cut much ice.

Address the view that opposes yours with respect. Ignoring it won’t make it go away.

Give thought to your appearance. If you’re on the environmental side dress rather more formally than you might usually dress if you’re talking to a business group. If you’re on the business side, loosen up a bit. You don’t have to copy the other side, just don’t flaunt your different-ness.

Make sure your closing offers opportunities for later questioning or discussion – this shows you to be open and not as closed-minded as you think they are.

Much of this comes down to your mind set. You are passionate about this topic or you wouldn’t be taking on this task. However, passion won’t serve you well here.; it can easily be mistaken for an overly assertive or even aggressive stance.

Once you have structured your major points work on the stories that soften them and bring them into emotional focus. Work on presenting a friendly, acceptable point of view.

You are persuading, not fighting a battle.

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