Executive Summary
Speech improves through feedback and practice.

Speech Techniques

Speech is the ultimate cultural fingerprint. After you speak a single sentence, listeners will come to some quick conclusions about you, possibly including the following:

I'm not saying that listeners' conclusions will be accurate and I'm not saying that it is right for people to make snap judgements about you, but I am saying that this is reality. So, turn this reality into your ally.

Something to Work At

You can improve your speaking just as surely as you can improve your writing. Speech is something you have to work at. You work at it by practicing--both by yourself and in front of others. When others give you useful feedback on speaking, take it as a gift and integrate their suggestions. If you have the chance, working with a speech coach can be quite valuable.

I used to ask students which actor's voice they most respected. Since every class immediately chose James Earl Jones, I'll cut to the chase. James Earl Jones was not born with that golden voice. In fact, as a boy, he had a severe stutter. The stutter distressed him so much that he stopped speaking. It was only through a series of gifted teachers that he overcame the stutter and developed his majestic voice. The last interview I read indicated that he was still working with a speech teacher.

The Basics

Speak loudly enough to be heard. Project your voice. [Do projection imagery exercise.] [Have class stand up and project: "Sam I Am, I do not like green eggs and ham."]

Speak clearly. Enunciate the final syllable of each word--make sure you catch all the consonants. [Have class stand up and say: "The Trans-Siberian Railroad Does Not Stop in Paris."]

Make eye contact. If you're really scared, feel free to stare just a little above their eyes.

Stand up straight; don't slouch. Square your shoulders.

Avoid Entrancing Your Audience

Your listeners have a very short attention span. You are at war to keep their focus. To win the battle, avoid entrancing your audience. Just about any form of repetition can put intelligent audience members into a very mild trance. Seek discontinuities!

To avoid repetition, alter:

In addition, if you must hold an audience's attention for a long time, try to change topics every 15 minutes or so.

Mesmerize. Don't entrance.

Learn from Entertainers

You don't have to be Jay Leno while giving a speech. Nevertheless, technical speakers wishing to enhance their success rate should learn the secrets of professional entertainers. You should treat listeners as an audience whose attention you must hold. You must learn to engage your audience. If you don't have their attention, your message will be lost.

As with any form of communication, you must know your audience. If the forum at which you are speaking is very conservative, then beware of many of these suggestions. If, however, the forum is somewhat more casual, then take these suggestions seriously and emerge as the speaker that gets invited back.

Provide a Pre-Show

A pre-show" is, not surprisingly, the information that precedes the show. All forms of professional entertainment provide a pre-show to build an audience and to build excitement. For example:

Technical speakers should also provide pre-show. Your audience should anticipate your speech. You should build a little buzz for your speech ahead of time. Perhaps you'll have someone distribute interesting handouts related to your presentation a few minutes before you speak. Perhaps these handouts will suggest something intriguing or puzzling.

Get the audience anticipating your speech before you say your first word.

Be Confident

Always believe that you are speaking about the most fascinating topic in the world. If you are talking about slug migration, then believe that everyone in your audience will be fascinated by slug migration.

An audience can smell the lack of confidence from a mile away.

Make a Good First Impression

As with many forms of communication, the audience makes very quick assessments. If you win over the audience at the beginning, things will roll your way. If you lose the audience at the beginning, it is very hard to regain them.

To make a good first impression, just:

To present serious business, walk faster to the podium.

Be Funny

If you are reasonably comfortable telling a joke, then open with a joke relevant to your topic. Likewise, it is wise to end with a relevant joke. Most members of your audience will appreciate this effort tremendously. Again, you don't have to be a professional comedian to pull this off.

By the way, spontaneous remarks almost always work better than prepared ones. So, prepare some spontaneity.

If you are clumsy with humor, don't attempt this.

A simple formula: start with a joke, end with a joke, show good graphics in between.

Deliver a Grand Finale

Good shows end with something big. Try to pull off a surprise just near the end. Better yet, promise your listeners something exciting, but don't deliver on it until the end of the presentation.

Body Language

Here are a few general suggestions:

As you give speeches in this class, audience members will provide very useful feedback on your body language. Some of the feedback will amaze you. ("I was doing that?")

Want some help on body language? Watch tv with the sound off. Watch David Letterman or Jay Leno and see how they invite you in through fairly relaxed body movements. Watch politicians try to convince you of their point of view through persuasive hand motions. Watch news reporters and see how their posture conveys gravity or intensity.

Note that some people in your audience are very attuned to body language and will pick up on all sorts of clues from it. Some will be trying to detect whether you are telling the truth, or at least, whether you believe in what you are saying. So, tell the truth and believe in what you are saying.

Dress for Success

Some will attend strongly to what you are wearing; others won't even notice. For those in the audience that do care about your clothes, dress wisely. Ask someone for help in this area (preferably someone without any MIT affiliation).