What makes a great speech?

You'll want these tips for your next assignment.

Tips on how to ace any speech from Senior Lecturer, Dr Paul Gardiner.

Public speaking is a fact of life. Whether it's for an assignment, celebration, or work presentation, it's a valuable skill to deliver a clear, succinct and impactful speech. However, this is easier said than done (ironically).  

We spoke to Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, Dr Paul Gardiner, for his advice on how to ace your next speech. With extensive experience as a secondary drama and English teacher, he has seen and given a few speeches over his time.   

Dr Gardiner explains there are three important ideas that encapsulate a great speech; know your audience, provide structure and tell a story.   

Know your audience   

Your audience is critical for any speech - without them, you're simply a person talking to themselves. Dr Gardiner says you must first consider who you're pitching to in order to craft your speech's content.   

"Every speech is really about the audience. Even if I am speaking about myself, it's not about me. It's about how my journey, ideas, experiences, and wisdom can help the people I am speaking to," he says.   

You can use several techniques to ensure your audience feels included in the moment, with one being rhetorical questions.    

"It's always good to refer to the people in the room. We incorporate rhetorical questions because that's a good way to involve the audience as it shows that you're not just there to talk at them," he says.   

Dr Gardiner also explains that a bit of charm and humour, even at the expense of yourself, never goes astray when winning over the audience with your words. It helps to even the power dynamic, because while we want a speech to feel like a conversation, only one person can actually talk.  

"That's the whole idea of buy-in. There has to be some reason for what you're saying to benefit the audience.  

"Even in university assignments, including a bit of humour is a good idea as a speech is a medium different to writing, as you need to help the audience along."  

Provide structure  

A clear structure is critical for any good speech, and you'll notice a pattern when looking back on the best. Just like a story or essay, Dr Gardiner says a speech should have a beginning, middle and end.   

"In the old days, we used to talk about the three ‘tell thems’, so tell them what you're going to say, tell them, and then tell them what you've just said," he says.   

This structure adds what Dr Gardiner describes as aural signposts. They tell you where you are in the speech, where you're heading, and where you will end.   

"Clearly indicating that you've got a structure to what you're about to say not only helps the listener stay on track but also shows them that you've thought this through. There is some confidence in this," Dr Gardiner says.

Providing structure can be as simple as saying, 'I am going to talk about [insert topic here] in five main points.' It shows your audience the overall argument and when you get to number five they are clear you are ready to conclude.

If you're feeling advanced, you can use a concept called the shelved idea to form structure, whereby an idea or anecdote mentioned in the beginning takes on new meaning when revisited at the end, thanks to clever points through the middle.   

Tell a story  

Anecdotes are critical in speeches as they help to convey your message and its deeper meaning.   

"Often, storytelling comes from personal anecdotes, but they're neither random nor self-promoting. Instead, they are symbolic," he says.   

Dr Gardiner references Jim Carrey's Maharishi University commencement speech as an example of great storytelling to inspire and introduce a theme, in this case courage in following a dream.

Carrey’s father chose an accounting career so he could provide security for his family, rather than pursuing his passion. He was let go from this ‘safe’ job, where Carrey learns that "you can fail at what you don't want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love."   

"Curating anecdotes that are connected to a greater thematic understanding show that the speech is personal and authentic," Dr Gardiner says. 

"Again, humour is really important here. I don't mean telling jokes or making fun of others, but instead finding the levity in your subject matter. Even in the darkest moments, you must have humour, making us hopeful, not pessimistic.” 

How to handle your nerves 

You've got a great story the audience will love, and you've organised your thoughts in a clear order. Now you have to say the speech outside of the safety of your head. Dr Gardiner has two tips to ensure your delivery is a success.   

"The first is preparation. The better prepared you are, the more control you'll have over the content and the more confidence you'll feel in dealing with anything else that comes up," he says.   

He suggests writing out high-stakes speeches, as this will also help with your structure. However, he does not recommend reading them word for word, as this is often a sign of a lack of preparation, especially in university oral presentations.  

"You can have your clear notes, but you want to speak instantaneously, so there is a freshness and urgency. Reading can come across as flat," he says.   

High preparation can be memorising the speech so you can deliver it naturally without notes or knowing the content well enough to speak correctly off the top of your head. Keeping in mind, you still want to take the audience on a structured journey.  

Dr Gardiner's second tip, which he admits might sound obvious, is to ensure your presentation isn't the first time you speak that day.  "You must warm up your voice like it's an instrument, and the best way to do that is to have a conversation, preferably an unrelated one full of humour. This will help relax your mind and body, so you're in the right headspace to speak. Often people say they are too nervous to talk - but believe me - it will calm your nerves and get your voice ready to go," he says.