Wednesday, May 23, 2007

It all begins with preparation

How can you take the nervousness that comes with speaking in front of an audience and turn it into energy? Here’s what works for me.

It begins with a little preparation. Whether someone else writes the speech or you do it yourself, it's imperative to read it out loud, either to yourself or to someone you can trust to be candid and constructive. In this way you'll uncover any words you have trouble pronouncing, any sentences that are too long and any points that seem to be getting lost.

Pay attention to the tricky words or replace them with easier ones that convey the same meaning. Pros may recite tongue-twisters like, "The seething sea ceaseth, and it sufficeth us," but they never put them in their speeches. If you must use a difficult word you may be able to put it at the beginning or end of a sentence so that it stands alone. The natural pause that comes before or after the sentence helps me pronounce a tricky word more easily.

Split lengthy sentences into two or more. They may look choppy, but they'll sound better. Remember, a speech is written for the ear, not the eye. In print the average sentence can easily run to 25 or 30 words, whereas for speech it should be one-half as long – literally. (The previous sentence is 24 words. If I were writing for the ear, I’d put a period after “words,” delete “whereas” and start a new sentence with “For speech.” Try it both ways yourself and see which is easier.)

Once again a little preparation can help you turn nervousness into energy for an effective presentation.


How important is preparation? The late Charles Day, who began his radio news career in the 40’s, once received an advance copy of a speech and noticed this phrase, “This premise sits on shifting sands.”

We were all there with our recorders, ready to capture the gaff,” Charlie said, “but the speaker pulled it off without a hitch!"

For more basics, see Writing for the Ear: a Primer in the left-hand column.