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Chapter 3: Preparation: The Source of a Speaker's Power


The will to win is nothing, unless you have the will to prepare.

- Anonymous

Of all the ways to banish fear - and the previous chapter revealed a whole host of them - one stands out: simple, thorough preparation. For the unprepared speaker, the terror is real; it's a feeling all too close to everyone's classic nightmare in which it's exam time and you didn't go to class all term....

But the prepared speaker knows no such terror. He or she realizes preparation is the foundation, the blueprint, for a successful speech. There is an old saying that a speech well prepared is nine-tenths delivered. That's a statistic that really puts fear in its place and leaves you ready to deliver a polished performance.

In one of my past careers, I was a Broadway actress. The first job I got was in Stop the World, I Want to Get Off. The show was in Washington, D.C., in its post-Broadway tour, and I was a replacement for someone who suddenly left the show. I had one week of rehearsal in New York - with no other people, no sets, no props, no costumes - and before I knew what was happening, I was on stage performing, being gently "guided" around by the other actors so I would know where to go. That night was a total blur, and needless to say, I wasn't very good. How could I be, when I had had no time to prepare?

Lack of preparation would make anybody nervous. If I had had more rehearsal, I would still have had butterflies, but they wouldn't have been dancing quite so strenuously.

Audiences Sense and Appreciate Preparation

Preparation ensures that your audience will never be in doubt about what you are trying to say - and neither will you. Careful preparation sharpens your perceptions and gives you great confidence. The more homework you do, the more spontaneous, confident, and relaxed you are when you deliver the speech.

Preparation as Process

How do you prepare? The traditional answer - taking notes and memorizing them - is just a small part of it. Real preparation means digging something out of yourself; it means gathering and arranging your thoughts, nurturing your ideas, and finding a unique way to express them. A speech needs time to grow; don't try to manufacture one in a hurry. Select your topic as soon as you can but don't rush to write down your speech. Start a speech file as soon as you know you will be speaking and put everything that comes to mind in this file: thoughts, quotations, and topics. Let the thinking process go on for a long time - at least two or three weeks - depending on your subject and the length of the speech. Sleep on it; dream about it. Let your ideas sink into your subconscious.

Then bring your evolving speech out of hiding. Make it a topic of conversation at the dinner table. Ask yourself questions about your topic. Write down your thoughts and the examples that come to you. Once you have the pot cooking, keep stirring it and adding new ideas and illustrations. Examples will pop into your head at random times - jot down as many of these inspirations as you can.

Brood With the Best of Them

As you brood, you will be in good historical company. Abraham Lincoln was known to brood on a speech for days or weeks. He carried little notes to himself in his hat. Eventually he arranged these jottings in order, wrote, revised, and shaped his speeches. But up until that last moment, he pondered and polished. On the Sunday before he was to deliver the speech dedicating the Gettysburg cemetery, he told a friend that the speech wasn't exactly finished. "I have written it over two or three times," he said, "and I shall have to give it another lick before I am satisfied."

The night before, he closeted himself away from the crowds and practiced his speech. He worked on it all night and was still absorbed in thought as he rode to the cemetery. When the moment came, he delivered the nation's most celebrated 266 words in less than five minutes.

After you've applied the Lincoln method and let your topic simmer in your mind, your next step is to actually prepare your talk, step by step. The order of the steps is also important, because it addresses your concerns in the order they arise. By themselves, the steps are easy to tackle. They take the daunting task of doing a speech from scratch and make it manageable, even fun.

The 14 Easy Steps to Preparation

  1. Think About the Purpose of the Speech. Is the purpose of your talk to inform, to entertain, to persuade, or to call your audience to action? Every speech must have its own topic and reason for being.

  2. Analyze the Audience. A gossip is one who talks to you about others; a bore is one who talks to you about himself; and a brilliant conversationalist is one who talks to you about yourself. Speak to your audience; know its members and understand their interests, attitudes, goals, and fears. Speak to what they know and care about, and you are on your way to a memorable speech. Chapter 9 goes into this crucial step in detail.

  3. Gather Enough Material. What do you already know and believe about this topic as it relates to this audience? What additional research can/ should you do? This has become so much easier with all that data within instant access on the Internet. Start by collecting all your thoughts and notes. After you have exhausted your thinking on your topic, go to the library, ask colleagues, and research. Imitate the great journalists - they never use most of their research, but doing research gives them a reserve they can draw on. It makes them more expert in their topics than before they began.

    Take advantage of trade publications and associations - two excellent sources of industry-specific information. I once gave a speech to the members of the American Lung Association. I researched the association and its concerns so thoroughly that people listening to the speech thought I was on the staff of the association. That's the fun of preparation - learning enough so that you really communicate with your audience, while adding to your own knowledge as well.

    Then be ready and willing to discard the unnecessary facts. Select only information relevant to your audience and to this particular speech. Your task is not to elaborate but to simplify and reinforce.

  4. Compose One Concise Sentence That Clearly States Your Purpose. This will become your focus - or even your title - and, as you put the rest of your speech together, you will constantly refer back to this one line that will keep you on target.

  5. Construct an Outline. Would you build a building without a foundation? You couldn't; and you also can't build your speech until you lay its foundation, which is the outline. In the outline you will reduce your ideas to three or four main sentences or key phrases and arrange them in the most convincing order. Chapter 5 will give you outlining ideas.

  6. Add Support. Now you will fill out the outline by adding explanations, support, facts, anecdotes, and stories to give depth and meaning to your main points. As a rule of thumb, you can spend 5 percent of your time defining the purpose and mood of your speech, 10 percent of your time outlining, another 10 percent on visuals, and 25 percent practicing.

    That leaves 50 percent of your time to spend on working on the support that colors your speech and brings it to life. Your mood could be serious, jovial, or closely tied with concerns facing the audience. Whatever the mood, the support you choose must reinforce the mood you have chosen and ensure that your speech is never boring. Although it's easy to gather facts, they don't make an interesting speech by themselves.

  7. Prepare All Visual Aids. If your speech needs visual aids, fine; if you don't need them, or your material does not lend itself to them, then don't try to fit them in.

    If used properly, visual aids can be effective. People remember 40 percent more when they hear and see something simultaneously. But remember that visual aids can be simple: I remember a salesman giving a speech suddenly holding up a shoe with a large hole for the audience to see. He made his point about the necessity of pounding the pavement - and memorably, too. Visual aids are covered in detail in Chapter 14.

  8. Devise an Opening With Impact. It may be humorous, surprising, informative, challenging - an opening can be anything original that works for your particular speech. You make your first impression in the introduction; it can cloud all that follows or assure people that what follows is worth listening closely to.

    In business presentations, it's important to tell your audience what's coming up. But you have to do this without losing its attention. Refrain from sentences that start out, "I'm Jane Jones, VP of marketing. Today I'll be covering...." It's dull.

    It's much better to get your audience's attention first and then explain your purpose. Jane Jones could start her talk on the benefits of exercise by saying, "Good morning, I'm Jane Jones and I'll be talking to you today about why exercise is important for executives, no matter how busy you are." Or she could grab her audience, "Did you know that 20 minutes of exercise three times a week can add 10 years to your life? Good morning, I'm Jane Jones, and after my talk you'll be able to walk out of here ready to begin a sound exercise program."

    Refrain from saving major surprises for the end, and grab people with the facts - and your focus - early on.

  9. Craft Your Conclusion. Build up to it, even if you are ending by summarizing your main points. Then end the speech with a strong, dynamic challenge that tells the members of the audience what you expect them to do with the information you've given them. Conclusions, like openings, must be memorable.

  10. Write Your Speech, Polish It, and Edit It. Put it aside for a day or two, then go back and rewrite any parts you think need it. Remember Lincoln and his need to tinker. One way to achieve his admirable conciseness is to edit - ruthlessly. Don't be afraid to cut one-third - or even one-half - of your prose; this will leave you with a text that is stronger, leaner, and clearer. Technical presenters, in particular, are prone to excess words. Distill your speech down to the essentials, especially if it is technical, so it will be easier for your audience to follow. Don't be afraid of being brief and clear - too few speakers are.

    Effective written communication is different from its oral counterpart. A speech is a temporary event - words float in the air and are gone. Your words will have a better chance of staying with your audience if you take advantage of oral communication's greater informality: Use short sentences and words, colorful language, sentence fragments, contractions, repetition, and questions. All of these work to make your words lively and memorable.

    And finally, once you are satisfied, practice your delivery.

  11. Have Your Confidence Cards Prepared and Ready. Are they legibly numbered so that if you drop them, you can get them back in order?

  12. Get Your Timing Down. Part of practicing your delivery is timing your speech. We speak approximately 150 words a minute, so three double-spaced typewritten pages take five minutes to deliver, depending on how quickly you speak.

    Even though you can never time a speech to the precise second, there is no substitute for recording your speech and estimating the time. If you have a lot of jokes, stories, and audience questions, you'll have to allow extra time for them.

    When it comes time to deliver the speech, keep a digital clock or a watch on the lectern where you can see it easily, or have somebody in the audience signal you when you have five minutes left. As you approach these final five minutes, you'll know you have just enough time left to finish an important point before going into your closing statement or before asking for questions.

  13. Make a Last-Minute Checklist. A key aspect of preparation is controlling and preparing your speaking environment. Avoid last-minute problems by making sure you take care of all the little details - such as arranging chairs in a small gathering and clearing away empty cups - before the speech. Other details to attend to before you speak can include:

    • Deciding what you're going to wear.

    • Making two copies of your text or notes.

    • Bringing your glasses.

    • Knowing if you'll have a podium.

    • Preparing visual-aid equipment and lighting.

    Lists compiled by truly prepared speakers are exhaustive and call attention to another crucial aspect of preparation: stage managing - overseeing all the details of your speech that don't have to do with your words. Chapter 18 will give you all the information you need on the key tasks that make up stage managing.

  14. Have I orchestrated the question and answer period? (You may need to read Chapter 13, Professional Secrets of Question-and-Answer Sessions, before you can answer that question.)

Preparation Knows No Shortcuts

These 14 steps constitute the ultimate outline for a person giving a speech. Sure, you can skip one, or cut a few corners, but the audience will notice. Every minute of your presentation should be supported by an hour of preparation time. It's also important to prepare for your general communications: talking to your boss about a raise or presenting something to a client. Even a telephone call requires preplanning: You should know what you plan to cover and what your objectives are.

Without preparing sufficiently, the odds are you will commit one of the six major speaking faults, which are explained in depth in the next six chapters. Tackle each step in order and you will have the foundation for a memorable speech.

Here's a summary in the form of questions you can ask yourself:

With fear put into perspective and with the foundation of preparation under you, you're ready to start eliminating the six major faults that get in the way of powerful speeches, and the next six chapters will show you how.

Professional Projects: Build Confidence Through Preparation
  1. Go through the preceding questions. Note first your strengths in preparation and then the aspects of issues you tend to avoid. What are you going to do about them? Create a realistic action plan for yourself.

  2. Make note of how you feel when someone is not prepared. Do you want your listeners to feel the same?

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