The difference between a good speech and a great speech may have less to do with what you say than how you say it.
As a four-year high school speech and debate competitor, I spent countless hours writing, memorizing, and practicing persuasive speeches. I delivered hundreds of presentations in my teens, and since then I’ve performed and spoken in dozens of public settings.
Even though I wrote my own speeches in high school, and usually present my own work, I’ve learned that public speaking entails much more than reading a written draft aloud. It requires successfully translating a text from page to performance.
In writing, it’s common to think about things like grammar, punctuation, paragraphs, and transitions. These are the tools that a writer can use to convey a point clearly and to help readers follow along.
In an oral presentation, however, a presenter conveys clarity and persuasiveness through nonverbal communication like body language and inflection.
When speaking, physical cues can do a lot: indicate transitions, help the audience grasp poignant or affecting moments, set a tone, establish your credibility, and add dynamism and variety to your message.
Below are seven characteristics that can transform a flat piece of writing into a compelling presentation.
Transitions, varied sentence structure, and paragraph breaks can help you to move your reader through an essay at the pace you want. In front of an audience, on the other hand, you have the advantage of actually being able to move.
Movement is especially helpful for marking transitions as you speak. Walking across the stage, for instance, communicates to the audience that you are switching gears to address a new point. You can even take a step or two to indicate small transitions.
Movement can also break your speech into manageable pieces. Think about reading a book of fiction versus a news story. A novel might have hefty, flowing paragraphs with heavy vocabulary, both of which are great for immersing the reader in lots of detail for long stretches of time. These feel much lengthier and heavier than the short, concise paragraphs in a newspaper article. Listeners (and viewers) get tired in the same ways that readers do, so add some variety to your talk.
Moving throughout your presentation, as long as you keep your movements controlled and confident, will help to keep your audience interested.
Using sentences of varying lengths and diversifying your punctuation can add a lot of depth and flavor to your writing. As a presenter, you can mimic these effects by paying close attention to your rate of speech.
If you speak rapidly for the duration of a presentation, you will make it difficult for an audience to absorb your message — but a few well-placed, snappy phrases can add urgency or emphasize the overwhelming nature of your topic. (Think about how quickly voiceover performers read medication side effects in commercials — while their aim is probably to gloss over potential dangers, these lists tend to draw your attention to the sheer quantity of things that can go wrong.)
Although speeding up can be effective when used sparingly, it’s best to err on the side of speaking slowly for the majority of your presentation. People almost always talk faster than they expect (we all get a little nervous in front of an audience), and inexperienced speakers stand the greatest risk of rushing through material to get things over with. That can have the unintended consequence of making your presentation seem longer because listeners are unable to engage with what you’re saying.
Stay in control of your own voice by speaking calmly. Practice enunciating your words clearly, and you’ll naturally slow down.
In the same way that you would use punctuation, paragraph breaks, or a section header, you can take short pauses in a presentation for dramatic effect.
A two- or three-second rest — which is longer than it sounds — after a gripping story or example lets the audience absorb what you’ve just said. Remember, people listening to your presentation don’t have copies of your speech in front of them to read. Don’t be afraid to take the time you need to make sure your message is abundantly clear.
Taking short breaks is also crucial if you’re planning on making any jokes or funny quips during your speech. Talking through or over laughter can kill the energy of a presentation. It signals to your audience that you’re not reacting to their responses in the moment and makes them think that by drowning out your voice they’re missing your next point. Plus, they’re laughing, so they’re probably enjoying your presentation. Why would you want to cut that short?
Credibility in writing comes through your tone, and it’s much easier to feign authority in writing than it is in person. Confidence is the intangible quality that lets you command a room and gives you the ability to persuade your listeners that what you’re saying is worth their time.
But how do you show confidence?
Look your listeners in the eyes and scan the room. Don't stare too long at one person, but yes, you do need to make eye contact. That does not mean looking at their foreheads, or at the wall behind them, or out the window. If you’re uncomfortable making eye contact, practice! The connection with your listeners that eye contact provides is invaluable and will make a huge difference in your speech. It indicates honesty and trustworthiness, both of which are vital when you’re in front of a crowd.
This is another key to persuading your listeners: Hold your shoulders back and your head up.
Audiences often reflect the qualities that a speaker conveys, so if you’re nervous, fidgety, or staring at the floor, the audience will be distracted, too. People listening to a speech want to feel like they’re in capable hands, and they’ll be more receptive to an engaged speaker who looks confident. Standing up straight and keeping your head held high provide simple ways of winning over a crowd.
Would you turn in a paper with misspellings, uneven margins, or strange fonts?
Of course not.
So when you’re presenting, make an effort to look composed. Even if they’re not fancy or dressy, make sure your clothes are neat. And take a few minutes to run a comb through your hair. Even a small amount of attention to your appearance can go a long way (a stain on a shirt can be pretty distracting). If you’re giving a presentation in front of classmates who see you every day, they’ll notice the extra effort.
Short of using emoji — and you should definitely steer clear of those in persuasive essays — gestures don’t have a place in writing in the way that they do in presentations. Judicious hand and arm movements can serve several strategic purposes, and enable you to:
- List items
- Compare and contrast objects or figures
- Emphasize key concepts
- Visually demonstrate a word or idea
The most important thing I can say about gestures is that they should always serve a purpose. In other words, don’t count off things on your fingers if they’re not part of a list, don’t act something out if you’re not talking about that action, and don’t shrug your shoulders unless you’re trying to express uncertainty.
As a competitor, the comment I most often received was that judges loved my gestures. Why? They were deliberate, clear, and crisp.
You should be mindful of the ways in which your gestures may come across to an audience member. Pointing, for instance, is usually seen as rude. Instead, if you’re trying to draw your attention to something, try raising your hand, palm up, in that direction.
When you’re not gesticulating, let your hands rest at your sides in a relaxed position. Waving your arms aimlessly is distracting; holding your hands in your pockets conveys nervousness. And while you’ve seen many people do it, avoid clutching the top of a lectern if you happen to be standing at one. It’s a natural instinct, but it also suggests to your audience that you’re anxious.
I’d also encourage you to memorize your speech or use notecards (placed on the lectern) when possible. It’s a lot easier to use your hands purposefully and meaningfully if you aren’t shuffling through papers.
On the page, a writer can use italics or exclamation points to stress really important words and sentences, but these aren’t very subtle. Plus, an essay loaded with exclamation points looks pretty juvenile.
In speech, you have your voice to help with this, but intonation can be tricky. Some vocal dynamics are natural, such as ending (what will be perceived as) a question by raising the pitch of your voice, but some are counterintuitive. You may think, for example, that speaking loudly is more dramatic than speaking quietly, but the opposite is often true.
If you’ve got a particularly emotional story to tell, you should set it up clearly and confidently, but as the drama begins to mount, make an effort to speak more quietly (but of course still audibly). The difference doesn’t have to be huge, but you may find your audience leaning in and paying much closer attention to you in an effort not to miss anything you’re saying.
When the tension finally breaks and you begin speaking more loudly, listeners may even respond physically, sitting back in their chairs as you return to your normal volume.
The tone of your voice should mirror the tone of your speech. Practice out loud, and listen to yourself. Better yet, practice in front of friends or family members. This brings me to my next point …
For most people, giving a speech is terrifying. Trying to nail the perfect amount of eye contact, the right number of hand gestures, and an effective mix of vocal inflection can be overwhelming. With practice, however, you will get better at each of these things until they all become second nature. If this is the first time you’re delivering a particular presentation aloud, your audience will be able to tell. The more you practice, the more comfortable you’ll be.
Rehearse your speech while standing up, walking around, doing dishes, or taking a shower. The more you repeat it in a variety of contexts, the more it will stick in your memory. You may find points in the presentation where you naturally pause, or where your voice rises or falls. Pay attention to these spots, and remember them. If you’ve naturally started reading sections in different ways, it’s probably because it just sounds right to you. While it’s a good idea to bounce ideas off someone else, you should also trust your gut. After all, you’re the one delivering the speech.
If you feel daunted by how many things there are on this list, start with one or two of them (eye contact should be a high priority). Work on integrating those into your presentation, and then when you’re comfortable, add more. Don’t let perfectionism get in the way of progress! Even incorporating just a few of these elements will amp up your presentation skills and effectively transform a piece of written text into an engaging performance.
If you want more formal instruction, check out the Noodle class search, where you can find options for dramatic and public-speaking instruction. You’ll be able to look for online or in-person classes and filter your results by location, provider, and cost.