The 3 Components of a Great Speech
My Toastmasters Series – Part III
In this post, the 3rd of my Toastmasters series, I’ll go through the different components of a speech and tell you how to deliver a memorable speech.
One of the things I learned during my experience as a Toastmaster member, is to break down a speech into 3 different components. I use this approach both when I am preparing my own speeches and when I am evaluating someone else’s. These components are structure, content, and delivery.
A clear structure is paramount if you want to make sure your message is conveyed effectively and your audience is left with some meaningful learning. Regardless of the Toastmasters pathway¹ you select, your first speech will be your icebreaker. When preparing for that, you will learn the basic structure, which entails intro, body, and conclusions.
A very typical and old recommendation in public speaking is “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them”. This is adopted by many public speakers, but others don’t consider this approach very effective if you want to keep your audience’s attention up. I’ve personally used it at times, but not always.
What I’ve learned from one of the projects in my Toastmasters pathway is that you can use a lot of different types of structure, for example:
- Chronological: following a sequence of events.
- Topical: organising your speech into topics and subtopics.
- Spatial: using geography to organise your speech, almost like a journey.
- Causal: linking cause and effect.
- Comparative: highlighting similarities and differences between two topics.
- Problem/Solution: presenting a problem first and then offering a possible solution.
- Particular/General/Particular: starting your speech with a specific example, then looking at the matter more in general and concluding with something more specific to reinforce your views.
I’ve experimented a lot with structure and tried some of the above. In one of my speeches I used a slightly different approach: I started with a very compelling personal story using vivid and descriptive language; I then went back in time and explained how I got to that moment described in the intro; I concluded by talking about what happened afterwards and what I learned from that whole experience. That approach was very successful in that it kept the audience engaged during the whole speech².
The content is arguably the most important component of your speech. This is really about the WHAT. What do you want your audience to take away from your speech? What do you want them to learn and even apply in their own lives?
A speech could really be about anything, so I won’t write too much about content. However, I thought I would share a couple of thoughts from my personal experience.
First of all, when working on the content of your speech, you may need or want to carry out some research on the topic. That might require you to read a book or an online article or even to interview an expert. Whichever approach you choose, it’s very important to always quote your source and support the ideas you’re presenting.
Secondly, I want to emphasise the power of stories, a very effective tool to use in your speech. You could use one or multiple short stories during your speech, otherwise your whole speech could be a story. Stories are powerful because they stimulate and engage the human brain and help the audience and the speaker to connect. Using stories increases the likelihood of your message sticking with your audience. As Carmine Gallo writes in his book “Talk like TED”, there are 3 types of stories: personal stories, stories about other people or stories about brand success.
I personally like to mix research and personal stories and I’ve used this technique many times. However, regardless of what the content of your speech looks like, my strong recommendation is to always try to present your ideas in a novel way. Most people crave for learning and novelty is instrumental to make sure your audience has something to take away from your presentation. Even if you think that what you’re saying is not new, you can always offer a different point of view, your own point of view, and share your personal experience on the topic. That will surely make your content more original and intriguing.
Last but not least, delivery. Great delivery is essential to become an outstanding public speaker. A memorable speech is not just about what you say but it’s also about HOW you say it. Great content with a great structure delivered poorly results in mediocre speech.
Great delivery can help you achieve multiple outcomes. Great delivery can help you deeply and intimately connect with your audience and bring them on to a journey with you. Great delivery can help your audience focus on the most significant parts of your speech, capture their attention and emphasise the most important message you’re trying to convey. Great delivery can ultimately generate emotions in your audience and feeling strong emotions is what makes a speech memorable. Strong emotions stick in your brain and become part of who you are. And as a great public speaker you want your speeches to be memorable.
That’s great, but what should you look out for in order to achieve that? There are multiple aspects to delivery. We can separate them out in two macro-categories: how you use your body and how you use your voice.
How you use your body is key. I will focus on 4 areas, body language, hand gestures, facial expression and eye contact³.
- A closed body language, e.g. if you cross your arms or clasp your hands, means that somehow you feel threatened by the situation and you’re trying to protect yourself from the audience. Instead, an open body language is a sign of you trying to connect to them.
- Your hand gestures can also make a huge difference. With your hands you can reflect and amplify what you’re saying with your voice. For example, you can use your hands to count if you’re going through a list or you can move your hand upwards if you’re talking about something increasing. Imagine doing the opposite and moving your hand downwards when talking about an increase. That would make your communication very confusing.
- Another important aspect of body language is your facial expression. With your face you can add an emotional component to what you’re saying. You can smile to highlight a joyful passage of your speech or wrinkle your eyebrows if worry is the emotion you want your audience to feel.
- If you want to engage your audience, eye contact is paramount. Delivering a speech without even looking at them is surely not a great way to ensure they’re engaged.
Moving on to how you use your voice, I am going to focus on 4 areas to watch out if you want to improve your vocal variety, the so-called 4 Ps, Pace, Pitch, Power, and Pauses.
- Pace: when you’re delivering a speech and you feel nervous, it’s very common to increase the pace of your delivery, almost like you don’t want to be there and you want this to get over with quickly. This is a very typical problem, that I personally had to work on a lot to overcome. Learning how to slow down during a key moment of your speech to make sure the audience can focus on that is essential to great delivery.
- Pitch: varying your pitch is another great tool to convey specific emotions. For example, lowering your pitch for sadness or raising it for excitement.
- Power: the volume of your voice doesn’t have to be the same all over your speech. Speaking more quietly can create a sense of intimacy when needed, but a loud voice can create stronger emotions in your audience.
- Pauses: most of us feel uncomfortable with pause and tend to fill in the gaps with “ehms” and “ehrs”, the most famous filler words. This is not great not only because it gives the impression you don’t know what you’re talking about, but also because you’re missing an opportunity to create a sense of anticipation and suspense. Using pauses effectively can literally get your audience to hang on your every word.
You may have noticed that in this post I am using the “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them” approach. So, in conclusion, with this post I’ve told you about the 3 components of a great speech and shared what I’ve learned from my experience so far.
In my next post I will write about one of my passions, the power of feedback.