11.1 – The Importance of Delivery
Fear of public speaking is common, but no one is afraid of writing their speech or conducting the research. Instead, people generally only fear the delivery, which will be the shortest part of the process (5-8 minutes for most classroom speeches). The irony, of course, is that delivery, being the part most feared, is simultaneously the aspect of public speaking that will require the least amount of time.
Despite this irony, delivery is probably your top concern about when giving speeches, so this chapter is designed to help you achieve the best delivery possible and eliminate some of the nervousness you might be feeling.
Let’s start the discussion by saying what public speaking isn’t: reading aloud while standing in front of people. You already know how to read and you already know how to talk, which is why you’re taking a class called “public speaking” and not one called “public reading aloud.”
Public speaking is a craft and, as with any craft, building knowledge and skills about that craft improve one’s ability to practice the craft. Reading aloud in front of people is not a craft.
The craft of public speaking lies in the ability to engage an audience and spark their imagination, enthusiasm, generosity, or other desired emotional reactions that lead to desired actions.
That’s why presentation matters so much; how you dress frames your delivery and your speed sets the emotional and intellectual pace for the audience. Eye contact builds connection and gesture focuses the audience on points of emphasis. This is the craft that you’ll be working on in almost any public speaking class. Your words matter, but so does the delivery. If you think back to your favourite teachers or the best speeches you’ve listened to or some similar experience of watching public speaking, you may struggle to recall more than a few words that were spoken, but you certainly remember how they were delivered and how they made you feel.
11.2 – Methods of Speech Delivery
Impromptu speaking is the presentation of a short message without advance preparation. You have probably done impromptu speaking many times in informal, conversational settings. Self-introductions in group settings are examples of impromptu speaking: “Hi, my name is Amanpreet and I’m a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity.” Another example of impromptu speaking occurs when you answer a question such as, “What did you think of the movie?” Your response has not been preplanned and you are constructing your arguments and points as you speak. Even worse, you might find yourself going into a meeting and your boss says, “I want you to talk about the last stage of the project” and you have no warning.
The advantage of this kind of speaking is that it’s spontaneous and responsive in an animated group context. The disadvantage is that the speaker is given little or no time to contemplate the central theme of their message. As a result, the message may be disorganized and difficult for listeners to follow.
Here is a step-by-step guide that may be useful if you are called upon to give an impromptu speech in public:
- Take a moment to collect your thoughts and plan the main point or points you want to make.
- Thank the person for inviting you to speak. Do not make comments about being unprepared, called upon at the last moment, on the spot, or uneasy. Doing so sets your speech back and reduces your effectiveness. However, even a few seconds of introduction to your comments will buy you time to think.
- Deliver your message, making your main point as briefly as you can, while still covering it adequately and at a pace your listeners can follow.
- Stay on track. Answer the question or prompt as given; if beneficial, you may want to pivot to a related topic to advance the conversation.
- If you can, use a structure, using numbers if possible: “Two main reasons…” or “Three parts of our plan….” Using a past, present, and future or geographic (e.g., urban/rural or east/west) structure is also helpful.
- Thank the person again for the opportunity to speak.
- Stop talking (it is easy to “ramble on” when you don’t have something prepared).
Impromptu speeches are generally most successful when they are brief and focus on a single point.
Manuscript speaking is the word-for-word iteration of a written message. In a manuscript speech, the speaker maintains their attention on the printed page, except when using visual aids. The advantage to reading from a manuscript is the exact repetition of original words. In some circumstances, this can be extremely important. For example, reading a statement about your organization’s legal responsibilities to customers may require that the original words be exact. In reading one word at a time, in order, the only errors would typically be mispronunciation of a word or stumbling over complex sentence structure.
However, there are downsides to manuscript speaking. First, it’s usually boring, except when being done by public speakers with an extraordinary mastery of the craft. You can see this with some politicians who use teleprompters to incredible effect (e.g., Barack Obama and, previously, Jack Layton). Unless the speaker has rehearsed the reading as a complete performance, animated with vocal expression and gestures, the presentation tends to be dull. Keeping one’s eyes glued to a paper script or screen prevents eye contact with the audience. For this kind of “straight” manuscript speech to hold the audience’s attention, the audience must be already interested in the message and speaker before the delivery begins.
Unless you are trained with a teleprompter and have access to one or have reached a true mastery-level ability to speak from a script or have a legal necessity for being precise in word usage, do not choose or attempt this type of speech.
Extemporaneous speaking is the presentation of a carefully planned and rehearsed speech, spoken in a conversational manner using brief notes. By using notes rather than a full manuscript, the extemporaneous speaker can establish and maintain eye contact with the audience and assess how well they are understanding the speech as it progresses.
Speaking extemporaneously promotes the perception of a knowledgeable and credible speaker, since they know the speech well enough that they don’t need to read it. In addition, the audience is likely to pay better attention to the message because it is engaging both verbally and nonverbally. It also allows flexibility. Working from the strong foundation of an outline, content can be improvised, deleted, or rephrase, allowing the speaker to adapt to the audience.
The disadvantage of extemporaneous speaking is that it requires more preparation and practice. Adequate preparation cannot be achieved the day before you’re scheduled to speak, so be aware that, if you want to present a credibly delivered speech, you will need to practice many times.
Memorized speaking is the rote recitation of a written message that the speaker has committed to memory. Actors, of course, recite from memory whenever they perform from a script (though some actors, such as Marlon Brando, did not memorize all of their lines, opting to let the character speak authentically to the scene with the lines known, but not necessarily word-for-word). Memorization can be useful when the message needs to be exact and the speaker doesn’t want to be confined by notes.
The advantage to memorization is that it enables the speaker to maintain eye contact with the audience throughout the speech. Being free of notes means that you can move freely around the stage and use your hands to make gestures. If your speech uses visual aids, this freedom is even more of an advantage.
However, there are some real and potential challenges. First, unless you also plan and memorize every vocal cue (the subtle but meaningful variations in speech delivery, which can include the use of pitch, tone, volume, and pace), gesture, and facial expression, your presentation will be flat and uninteresting, and even the most fascinating topic will suffer. You might end up speaking in a monotone or a sing-song repetitive delivery pattern. You might also present your speech in a rapid “machine-gun” style that fails to emphasize the most important points.
Second, if you lose your place and start trying to ad lib, the contrast in your style of delivery will alert your audience that something is wrong. If you go completely blank during the presentation, finding your place and recovering can be very difficult. Obviously, memorizing a typical seven-minute classroom speech takes a great deal of time and effort and, if you aren’t used to memorizing, it is very difficult to pull off. Using brief notes and rehearsing a great deal is usually much better than attempting to memorize a speech (and then deliver it as you memorized it).
Having said that, memorizing a few key lines, especially the first and last 15 seconds of a speech are a good way of ensuring a strong opening and closing. Trying to memorize the middle is too difficult.
11.3 – Preparing For Your Delivery
In the 1970s, before he was an author, playwright, and film actor, Steve Martin was an up-and-coming stand-up comedian whose popularity soared as a result of his early appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and Saturday Night Live. As Martin notes in his autobiography, Born Standing Up (2008), as the audiences for his act got bigger and bigger, he needed to adapt his delivery to accommodate:
Some promoters got on board and booked me into a theatre in Dallas. Before the show I asked one of them, How many people are out there?” “Two thousand,” he said. Two thousand? How could there be two thousand? That night I did my usual bit of taking people outside, but it was starting to get dangerous and difficult. First, people were standing in the streets, where they could be hit by a car. Second, only a small number of the audience could hear or see me (could Charlton Heston really have been audible when he was addressing a thousand extras?). Third, it didn’t seem as funny or direct with so many people; I reluctantly dropped it from my repertoire. (p. 168)
Martin’s audiences would grow to be around 50,000 at the height of his popularity as a stand-up comedian, again requiring him to make adjustments to his delivery (he began wearing his iconic all-white suit so that people in the nosebleed seats at his shows could still see his frenetic movements from afar). Most of us will never speak to so many people at once, but even though you don’t expect an audience of such size, you should still be prepared to adapt to the setting in which you will speak.
A lectern is a small raised surface, usually with a slanted top, where a speaker can place notes during a speech. While a lectern adds a measure of formality to the speaking situation, it also allows speakers the freedom to come out from behind the lectern to establish more immediate contact with the audience and to use both hands for gestures. (By the way, this piece of furniture is often mistakenly called a podium, which is a raised platform or stage.)
However, for inexperienced speakers who feel anxious, gripping the edges of the lectern with both hands might be tempting. You might even wish you could hide behind it. Be aware of these temptations so you can manage your feelings effectively and present yourself to your audience in a manner they will perceive as confident. One way to achieve this is by limiting your use of the lectern to a place to rest your notes only. Try stepping to the side or front of the lectern when speaking with free hands, only occasionally standing at the lectern to consult your notes. This will enhance your eye contact, as well as free up your hands for gesturing.
Speaking in a Small or Large Physical Space
If you are accustomed to being in a classroom of a certain size, you will need to make adjustments when speaking in a smaller or larger space. A large auditorium can be intimidating, especially for speakers who feel shy and “exposed” when facing an audience. However, the maxim that “proper preparation prevents poor performance” is just as true here as anywhere. If you have prepared and practiced well, you can approach a large-venue speaking engagement with confidence.
If you have the opportunity, show up to the venue before anybody else will have arrived (this author once showed up at a theatre at 6:30am to test his ability to project his voice to the back row) and gain comfort with the space. Even if other people are present, move about the room to become familiar and comfortable with the layout and sightlines.
In terms of practical adjustments, be aware that your voice is likely to echo in a large room, especially if far fewer people are in the space than it can hold, so you will want to speak more slowly as well as more loudly than usual and make use of pauses to mark the ends of phrases and sentences. Similarly, your facial expressions and gestures should be larger so that they are visible from farther away. If you are using visual aids, they need to be large enough to be visible from the back of the auditorium. Take note, requests for audience members to move forward in the room are generally ignored, so that request is hardly worth making.
Limited space is not as disconcerting for most speakers as enormous space. A limited space has the advantage of minimizing the tendency to pace back and forth while you speak. A small space also calls for more careful management of note cards and visual aids, as your audience will be able to see up close what you are doing with your hands. Do your best to minimize fumbling, including setting up in advance or arriving early to decide how to organize your materials in the physical space. Of course, if you have any control over the location of the presentation, you should choose one that fits the size of your audience.
Outdoor settings can be charming, but they are prone to distractions. If you’re giving a speech in a setting that is picturesquely beautiful or prone to noise, such as from cars, maintaining the audience’s attention may be difficult. If you know this ahead of time, you might plan your speech to focus more on mood than information and perhaps to make reference to the lovely view.
More typically, outdoor speech venues can pose challenges with weather, sun glare, and uninvited guests, such as insects and pigeons. (This author once watched a groom gaze off at a bald eagle circling as his bride was giving her vows; she managed to regain his attention, but consider how easily distracted everybody else could be, too!) If the venue is located near a busy highway, being heard over the ambient noise may be impossible. You might lack the usual accommodations, such as a lectern or table. Whatever the situation, you will need to use your best efforts to project your voice clearly without sounding like you’re yelling or straining your voice. In the best outdoor situation, you will have access to a microphone.
Using a Microphone
Most people today are familiar with microphones that are built into video recorders, phones, and other electronic devices, but they may be new at using a microphone to deliver a speech. One overall principle to remember is that a microphone only amplifies; it does not clarify. If you are not enunciating clearly, the microphone will merely enable your audience to hear amplified mumbling.
Microphones come in a wide range of styles and sizes. Generally, the easiest microphone to use is the clip-on style worn on the front of your shirt. If you look closely at television personalities, you will notice these tiny microphones. They require very little adaptation. You simply have to avoid looking down—at your notes, for instance—because your voice will be amplified when you do so.
Lectern and handheld microphones require more adaptation. If they’re too close to your mouth, they can screech. If they’re too far away, they might not pick up your voice. Some microphones are directional, meaning that they are only effective when you speak directly into them. If there is any opportunity to do so, ask for tips about how to use a particular microphone. Also practice with it for a few minutes while you have someone listen from a middle row in the audience and signal whether you can be heard well. The best plan, of course, would be to have access to the microphone for practice ahead of the speaking date.
Often a microphone is provided when it isn’t necessary. If the room is small or the audience is close to you, do not feel obligated to use the microphone. Sometimes an amplified voice can feel less natural and less compelling than a direct voice. However, if you forgo the microphone, make sure to speak loudly enough for all audience members to hear you—not just those in front. (And if somebody tells you that you need to use the microphone, you need to use the microphone.)
A small audience is an opportunity for a more intimate, minimally formal tone. If your audience has only eight-to-twelve people, you can generate greater audience contact. Make use of all the preparation you have done. You do not have to revamp your speech just because the audience is small. When the presentation is over, there will most likely be opportunities to answer questions and have individual contact with your listeners.
One problem with a small audience is that some people will feel it is their right, or that they have permission, to interrupt you or raise their hands to ask questions in the middle of your speech. This makes for a difficult situation because the question may be irrelevant to your topic or cause you to go on a side track if answered. This is something you’ll need to navigate based on the the time you have available, the relevance of the question, the mood of the audience, and whether it’s genuinely helpful to engage with that question. Pushing the question(s) to the end of the speech may be the best option.
If you have a large auditorium, you may feel intimidated by the vastness of the room. If it’s full, you may feel the weight of so many eyes; if it’s not very full, you may feel self-conscious about the low attendance. As a speaker, be prepared for both possibilities and adapt accordingly.
One secret of public speaking, however, is that, the larger the audience, the more power the speaker has. In a crowd of 10,000, five people walking out angry isn’t even noticed. In a room of 20, one person storming out of the room could be devastating to the presentation. In any presentation, the power ratio is one-to-one. The power of the speaker is equal to the power of the audience. The larger the audience, the less power any one person in the audience has. Also remember that the audience is generally on your side. They want you to succeed. In fact, they want you to be fantastic because that would make the most of their attention. Remember that you pretty much always have allies in the room. If possible, identify them early so you can give them eye contact from time to time to help you build comfort and (at least the appearance of) rapport with the audience.
11.4 – Practicing Your Delivery
There is no foolproof recipe for good delivery. Each of us is unique and we each embody different experiences and interests. However, there are some techniques you can use to put yourself in the best possible position to succeed.
What follows are tips to keep in mind, but they all derive from one simple premise:
Practice and prepare. Practice and prepare. Practice and prepare.
Practice Your Speech Out Loud
We sometimes think that the purpose of practicing a speech is to learn the words and be prepared for what we will need to say. That is part of it, but practice also lets you know where potential problems lie. For example, if you only read your speech in your head or whisper the words quietly, you’re not really practicing what you will be doing. You need to simulate the real speech environment when you practice. Not only will this help you learn the speech, but it will help identify any places where you tend to mispronounce or stumble over words. Also, sentences on paper do not always translate well to the spoken medium. Practicing aloud allows you to actually hear where your sentences and phrases are awkward, unnatural, or too long, and allows you to correct them before getting up in front of the audience.
Practice Your Speech Standing Up
Because you will likely be standing when speaking (accepting any physical limitation in being able to do so, of course), you need to practice that way. As we mention in more detail below, the default position for delivering a speech is with your feet shoulder-width apart and your knees slightly bent. Practicing this way will help develop muscle memory and will make it feel more natural when you are doing it for real. We also suggest you wear the same shoes you will be wearing on the day of your speech.
If speaking from a standing position is difficult or impossible for you, position yourself in such a way that as much of your body as possible is visible. For example, if you benefit from the use of a wheelchair, move so that you are not behind a lectern or table.
Practice Your Speech with a Lectern
One of the biggest challenges with practicing a speech as you’re going to give it is usually the fact that most of us don’t own a lectern. This is problematic, since you don’t want to practice giving your speech while holding your notes in front of you because that is what will feel comfortable when you give your speech for real. The solution is to practice your speech while standing behind something that approximates the lectern you will have in your speech. Sometime this may be a kitchen counter or maybe even a dresser you pull away from the wall. One particularly creative idea that has been used in the past is to pull out an ironing board and stand behind that. The point is that you want to get experience standing behind something and resting your speech on it. If you have the opportunity, sneak into the room where you’ll be speaking when nobody else will be there to practice.
Practice Your Speech with an Audience
Obviously, on the day you give your speech, you will have an audience watching you. The best way to prepare for the feeling of having someone watch you while giving a speech is to have someone watch you while you practice giving a speech. Ask your parents, siblings, friends, or significant other to listen to you while running through what you will say. Not only will you get practice in front of an audience, but they may be able to tell you about any parts that were unclear or problems you might encounter.
Not to overcomplicate the issue, but remember that when you speak, you will have an entire room full of people watching. Therefore, if you only have one person watching you practice, be sure to simulate an entire audience by looking around the room and not focusing on just that one person. When you give your speech for real, you will want to make eye contact with the people on the left side of the room as well as the right; with the people in the front as well as in the back. You also want the eye contact to be a few seconds long, not just a glance; the idea is that you are talking to individuals, not just a glob of people. During practice, it may help to pick out some strategically placed objects around the room to occasionally focus on just to get into the habit of looking around more often.
Practice Your Speech for Time
How quickly do you speak?
You may think you know, but do you know the number? Many people can readily quote how quickly they can type, as in 50 words per minute, but few know their speaking speed.
Native English speakers typically use about 150 words per minute. That number may go up if you’re nervous or excited. People who speak English as a second (or third or fourth or fifth) language may speak more slowly. Everybody is unique and your energy level will affect your speaking speed. This article provides some useful examples of speaking speed.
Try timing your speaking speed with a set of sample text. You could read a newspaper or one of your school assignments. Record yourself and check how many words you spoke in a minute. With this number, you can estimate the number of words you’ll have in a speech of a given length.
You will undoubtedly be given a time limit for your speeches and need to stick to it. As a general rule, if your speech window is 5-7 minutes, your ideal speech time is going to be 6 minutes and your word count will be 6 x 150 words per minute (900 words, but more if you tend to race and fewer if you speak more slowly).
Setting your target at 6 minutes gives you an extra 60 seconds at the beginning in case you talk very fast and race through it and 60 seconds on the back end in case you get lost or want to add something at the last minute. If you practice at home and your 5-7 minute speech lasts 5:06, you are probably going to be in trouble on speech day. Most likely your nerves will cause you to speak slightly faster and put you under the 5:00 mark. If your times are vastly different, you may have to practice four or more times.
When practicing your speech at home, time yourself at least three times and record yourself each time. This way you can see if you are generally coming in around the same time and feel pretty good that it is an accurate reflection of how long you will speak. Conversely, if during your three rehearsals, your times are 5:45, 5:12, and 6:37, that is a clear indicator that you need to be more consistent in what you are saying and doing.
11.5 – What to Do When Delivering Your Speech
The interplay between the verbal and nonverbal components of your speech can either bring the message vividly to life or confuse or bore the audience. Therefore, neither overdramatize your speech delivery behaviours nor downplay them. This is a balance achieved through rehearsal, trial and error, and experience.
Almost everyone who gives a speech in public gets scared or nervous to some extent. Even professionals who do this for a living feel that way, but they have learned how to combat those nerves through experience, preparation, and practice. When we get scared or nervous, our bodies emit adrenaline into our systems so we can deal with whatever problem is causing us to feel that way. That burst of adrenaline is going to try to work its way out of your body and manifest itself somehow. One of the main ways is through your hands.
The key for knowing what to do with your hands is to use them naturally as you would in normal conversation. If you were standing around talking to your friends and wanted to list three reasons why you should all take a road trip this weekend, you would probably hold up your fingers as you counted off the reasons (“First, we hardly ever get this opportunity. Second, we can…”). Try to pay attention to what you do with your hands in regular conversations and incorporate that into your delivery.
However, with all that said, if you have nothing else to do with your hands, such as meaningful gestures, the default position for them is to be resting gently on the sides of the lectern (see Figure 11.2). You don’t want to grip the lectern tightly, but resting them on the edges keeps them in position to move your notes on if you need to or use them to gesture. As stated above, you want to practice this way beforehand so you are used to speaking this way when you come to class.
Skilled public speakers look for additional ways to use their hands as part of delivering the speech. Experimentation, coaching, practice, and experience will help you understand how and when to animate your speech with your hands.
Like your hands, a lot of nervous energy is going to try to work its way out of your body through your feet. On the “too much” end, this is most common when people start “dancing” behind the lectern or swaying, as if on a rocking boat. Another variation is twisting feet around each other or the lower leg. On the other end are those who put their feet together, lock their knees, and never move from that position. Both of these options look unnatural and will be distracting to your audience.
The default position for your feet is to have them shoulder-width apart with your knees slightly bent (think of your posture before throwing a free-throw in basketball or right before you step onto a bus). Again, you want to look and feel natural, so adjust your weight or move out from behind the lectern, but constant motion (or perpetual stillness) will not lead to good overall delivery.
These two sections on hands and feet mention “energy.” Public speakers need to look energetic—not hyperactive, but engaged and upbeat about communicating their message. Slumping, low and unvarying pitch and rate, and lack of gestures telegraph “I don’t care” to an audience.
There is a very simple rule when about what you should bring with you to the lectern when you give your speech: only bring to the lectern what you absolutely need to give the speech. Anything else you have with you will only serve as a distraction for both you and the audience. For the purposes of a public class, the only objects you should need to give your speech are whatever materials you are speaking from, and possibly a visual aid if you are using one. Beyond that, don’t bring pens, laptops, phones, lucky charms, or notebooks with you to the lectern. These extra items can ultimately become a distraction themselves when they fall off the lectern or get in your way. Never have a prop for a prop’s sake.
Also beware of the following potential distractions:
- Jewelry that “jingles” when you move, such as bracelets,
- Uncomfortable shoes or shoes you rarely wear, or
- Longer hair (that can get in your eyes, for example).
For those with longer hair, remember that you will be looking down at your notes and then looking back up. Don’t be forced to “fix” your hair or tuck it behind your ear every time you look up. Have a method to keep your hair totally out of your face so that the audience can see your eyes and you won’t have to adjust. Also, if you want your sleeves up at your elbows, don’t wear a shirt that keeps sliding back down to your wrists; if you wear fake eye lashes, make sure they are comfortable so that you are not constantly stroking or adjusting them.
Your audience is the single biggest factor that influences every aspect of your speech. Eye contact is how you establish and maintain a rapport with your audience during your speech. That makes it vital to an effective public speaking delivery.
What is important to note here is that you want to establish genuine eye contact with your audience, and not “fake” eye contact.
However, let’s also consider the “fake it ’til you make it” mantra. If making eye contact is unbearable to you as a novice speaker, there are some ways to fake eye contact, though it’s seldom convincing. As a speaker, you need to get over this barrier to effective speaking and there’s only one way to get over the barrier: make eye contact.
Here are some examples of how folks fake eye contact:
- Visualizing three points on the back wall and looking at those instead of real people. If you do this, you’ll look like you are staring off into space and your audience will reciprocate. To avoid this, look around the entire room, including the front, back, left, and right sides of the space.
- Reading a speech, but looking up for a fraction of a second to make it seem like they are making eye contact. Eye contact is more than just physically moving your head; it is about looking at your audience and establishing a connection. In general, your eye contact should last at least five seconds at a time and should be with multiple individuals throughout the room.
- Looking right at one person only. One audience member will feel awkward; the others will feel ignored.
Keep in mind, none of the substitutions above work, but if you need to advance by baby steps, these are the first baby steps. If moving to the next step, consider the third point above, but try to find at least three allies in a room so that your eye contact can roam to at least three different people with whom you feel more comfort. From there, you can move to five people and, eventually, you can engage more and more people with more and more comfort.
The volume at which to speak depends largely on the size of the room you’re in, the number of people in the room, and whether you’re using a microphone. While the ratio may seem intuitive, speakers often underestimate the need to project their voice (and often are unfamiliar with how to do so). If you speak too softly, your audience will struggle to hear you. If you speak with too much volume, your audience may feel that you are yelling at them.
If you know that you are naturally a soft-spoken person, you will need to work on breathing to get more air into your lungs and on projecting your voice to the people in the last row, not just those in the front. Of course, if you are naturally a very loud talker, you may want to make other adjustments when giving your speech, such as slowing down and moderating your delivery. Obviously, this will all change if you are asked to speak in a larger venue or given a microphone to use. Keep in mind the volume you normally use may be cultural. Some cultures default to a soft-spoken volume and some are gregariously loud. “Temet nosce” (from Latin): know thyself.
This author once coached a particularly soft-spoken young woman from a culture where women are expected to speak nearly in a whisper by standing at opposite sidelines of a football field (approximately (5o metres) to rehearse speeches. When she was ready, rehearsals were done from opposite goal lines (approximately 90 metres). This practice taught her about breathing deeply and using her lungs to project her speech to the back of an auditorium.
Pitch is the relative highness or lowness of your voice and, like everything, you can have too much or too little (especially with regard to variation). Too much pitch variation occurs when people “sing” their speeches and their voices oscillate between very high pitched and very low pitched. While uncommon, this is sometimes attributed to nerves. The more common issue is too little variation in pitch, which is known as being monotone.
Delivering a speech in a monotone manner is usually caused by reading too much; generally the speaker’s focus is on saying the words correctly (because they have not practiced). Generally, if we are interested in and passionate about communicating our thoughts, we are not likely to be monotone. We are rarely monotone when talking to friends and family about matters of importance to us, so pick topics you care about.
A common misconception is that pausing during a speech is bad, but that isn’t necessarily true. You pause in normal conversations, so you shouldn’t be afraid of pausing while speaking. This is especially true if you are making a particularly important point: you will want to give the audience a moment to digest what you have said. You may even repeat the words for emphasis.
Of course, pausing too much is also possible, both in terms of frequency and length. Someone who pauses too often (after each sentence) may come off seeming like they don’t know their speech very well. Someone who pauses too long (more than a few seconds), runs the risk of the audience feeling uncomfortable or, even worse, becoming distracted or letting their attention wander. We are capable of processing words more quickly than anyone can speak clearly, which is one of the reasons listening is difficult. Pauses should be controlled to maintain attention of the audience; gesture and eye contact are an effective tool for managing silence in a speech.
At various points during your speech, you may find yourself in need of a brief moment to collect your thoughts or prepare for the next section of your speech. At those moments, you will be pausing, but we don’t always like to let people know that we’re pausing. So what many of us do in an attempt to “trick” the audience is fill in those pauses with sounds so that it appears that we haven’t actually paused. These are known as vocalized pauses or “fillers.”
Everyone uses vocalized pauses to some degree, but not everyone’s become distracting due to their overuse. One of the antecedent authors of this text remembers attending a wedding and counting the number of times the best man said “like” during his toast (22 was the final count). The most common vocalized pauses are “um” and “uh,” but then there are others.
The bad news here is that there is no quick fix for getting rid of your vocalized pauses. They are so ingrained into all of our speech patterns that getting rid of them is a challenge. However, there is a two-step process you can employ to begin eliminating them. First, you need to identify what your particular vocalized pause is. Do you say “um,” “well,” or “now” before each sentence? Do you finish each thought with, “you know?” Do you use “like” before every adjective (as in “he was like so unhappy”)? (This author once dated somebody who began virtually every sentence with “okay,” as in, “okay, let’s talk about pauses in speech.”)
After figuring out what your vocalized pause is, the second step is to carefully and meticulously try to catch yourself when you say it. If you hear yourself saying “uh,” remind yourself, I need to try to not say that. Catching yourself and being aware of how often you use vocalized pauses will help you begin the process of reducing your dependence on them and hopefully get rid of them completely.
Good delivery augments your speech and conveys information to the audience. Anything that distracts your audience means that fewer people will be persuaded or entertained. Practicing your speech in an environment that closely resembles the actual situation in which you will be speaking will better prepare you for what to do and how to deliver your speech when it really counts.
And, from this section, above all else, remember this:
Practice and prepare. Practice and prepare. Practice and prepare.
Something to Think About
Each of us struggles with a certain aspect of delivery: voice, posture, eye contact, distracting movement, vocalized pauses, or something else. What is yours? Based on this chapter and what you have already experienced in class, what is your biggest takeaway about improving delivery?
This chapter was adapted from Exploring Public Speaking, 4th Edition by Barbara Tucker and Matthew LeHew, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.