7 Things to Do When You Have to Give a Short Speech
I once went to a small fundraising event for a nonprofit that I thought the world of. They did so much good in my neighborhood that I truly thought they could do no wrong.
Then one of the organizers asked someone to stand up "to say a few words," and her presentation turned into one of the longest, least organized, most lifeless talks I've ever heard. Those who were lucky enough to be standing near the back of the room slipped out. For the rest of us, the goodwill seemed to slip away.
You can find a lot of advice out there on how to give a big speech on front of a big audience--but how often do most of us do that? More often, you're likely asked to take a few minutes to address a smaller group--sometimes with little or no warning. The next time that happens to you, here are seven things to keep in mind.
1. Strip it down.
There's an unfortunate temptation in a short speech to try to cram everything you have to say into a short time. Instead of trying to make the time fit the speech, however, recognize that you have to make your remarks fit the time allotted. If you've got five minutes to talk, you shouldn't have more than three main points.
Key: If your short speech is longer than this article, it's too long.
2. Plan and rehearse.
This applies whether you have five days notice before your speech or 30 seconds. If you're surprised to be called on to speak, your planning might consist only of conjuring up your three main points while someone else is trying to get everyone's attention and introduce you, but that's better than nothing. Ideally, you want to plan everything you're going to say, rehearse in front of other people, and rewrite over and over.
Key: Don't fall into the trap of thinking that short remarks require less preparation. In fact, giving a good short speech can be harder than giving a long one.
3. Cut yourself off.
In the history of the entire world, I don't think anyone has ever said, "I wish that speech had been longer." So keep track of time, and by all means don't ramble. If you've run out of time to make a major point, either work it into the questions people have for you afterward, or send a follow-up note to the members of the audience.
Key: Take the length of time you've been asked to speak for, and cut it down by 20 percent.
4. Use milestones
For a five minute speech, you want to organize in roughly one-minute intervals, and you want to offer milestones to the audience at the top of each minute. You get one minute for your introduction, during which you explain what you plan to say. Then you get 60 seconds each for your three main points. That last 60 seconds can be used either for a short conclusion, or as a buffer in case you run long.
Key: Use verbal cues to keep the audience on track. Phrases that seem obvious on the written page can be much more helpful in oral remarks: "That was the first point. Now we'll talk about the second of my three points."
5. Show. Don't tell.
For a short speech, I generally like to have something physical to show the audience--a couple of photos, a prop, anything that gives the audience's eyes something to focus on. Think of the difference between announcing, "Yesterday, we signed an important deal," versus holding up a ballpoint pen and saying, "With this pen, we made history yesterday when we signed Spacely Sprockets to a five-year contract." (Or else, raise your coffee cup and proposing a toast, rather than just making an announcement.) It can be a little bit corny, granted, but it's much more memorable.
Key: If you use props, you almost always want to use them early in your remarks. Don't distract the audience and have them wondering what the projector is for, or why you are holding a teddy bear or a vacuum cleaner (or whatever your prop may be).
6. Make it personal
You do not need to bare your soul, but in almost every short speech there is an opportunity to connect on a personal level with your audience. Don't be afraid to allow emotion to enter into your voice if appropriate. If the news is good, say you're happy and proud; if you have to share something sad or infuriating, make your tone and your expressions match the news.
Key: A few short words can be enough to make a connection. Simply saying with sincerity something like, "On a personal note, I'm so incredibly proud of this group" or "I can't tell you yet how we will overcome this challenge, but I can tell you for damn sure we will find a way"--depending on the circumstance--can be enough.
7. Speak up.
All of your preparation, cutting, organizing, and emotion goes for naught if people can't hear you. If you have good audio equipment, use it. If not, at least start out by asking whether people can hear your voice. One trick: Ask the audience to raise their hands if they can hear you well. If you see a patch of people somewhere without their hands up, you know there's an issue you need to address.
Key: Remember that ensuring everyone can hear is your responsibility. Project your voice, and if you find that people in the back can't hear what you have to say consider moving to the center. If you run into trouble and can't find a solution, cut your remarks short, and find a way to follow up later.
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BILL MURPHY JR. | Columnist
Bill Murphy Jr. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.