Fear, Deleting and Other Truths of Making a Speech

Photo by Kian McKellar/Via Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Kian McKellar/Via Flickr Creative Commons

The following is a guest post from our longtime friend and partner Steve Calechman. Steve is a talented writer and stand-up comedian. We're working with Steve to offer speechwriting and speech coaching services to our clients -- and we're thrilled to have him as part of our creative team.

Steve has spent decades standing in front of strangers trying to make them laugh. So he knows a thing or two about how to win an audience over. Below are some of his tips on how to kill it when the mic is in your hands.

By Steve Calechman

Steve Calechman

Steve Calechman

I’ve been a journalist and stand-up comedian, both for about 25 years. I’ve written and said serious and funny things. I’ve told jokes in roadside bars, clubs, temples and churches. Once, I did stand-up on a ladder. I’ve also taught stand-up comedy to people of all ages and confidence levels, taking them from no material to performing at a club in a matter of weeks. I’ve also coached people on giving toasts and speeches.

I’m always learning about how to best make a point, but here’s what I’ve been able to tell so far: 

Even if you’ve never given a speech, you have more than 10 minutes of experience to talk about. And with any topic, there are multiple directions to take. None are wrong. You just have to pick one. That means some good material won’t make the final version. That’s OK because …

It should all be material you love. Here’s a simple test: Do you believe the words? If you don’t, there’s no reason the audience will. You deliver material with your whole body. If it’s just with your mouth, you might as well keep it closed. 

Edit without mercy, especially your set-ups to major points. People don’t need much to figure out situations they’ve never been in. Only you know all of the words that exist before the final draft. You can’t fall in love with any of them. Use this test: If you took the line out, would it matter? If it doesn’t, your speech just got shorter.

You should use humor. Really, use humor. It’s rarely done, so the change is refreshing. When people laugh, they relax and want to keep listening. It’s true that you can’t make someone funny. But in my experience, I’ve only met less than 10 people who had absolutely no sense of humor. There are openings in your speech, and it’s not about telling jokes, but being observational or slightly self-deprecating in order to support a point. Don’t be afraid, because no one has ever said, “I didn’t like the speech. Too funny.” 

You should be nervous. It’s a live moment, so there’s no guarantee about how it will go. And, that feeling never goes away because expectations keep getting bigger. Acknowledge the nerves and don’t waste energy thinking they shouldn’t exist. And then remember to enjoy the experience. You’re talking into a microphone and people are listening to what you have to say. That’s not an everyday thing. 

Keep a core amount of material. Constantly switching up doesn’t keep things fresh. It just keeps you stressed. You spend a ton of energy when you first start just trying to remember what you want to stay. You need time to learn your lines. Once you do, you’ll be comfortable enough to use pauses, elongate words for effect, and realize, “Oh I have hands.” And since your perspective, experience and the context always change, you’ll continue to find new angles to old material, but only if you stick with the stuff.

The night before your speech, you might completely rewrite it. That’s normal and a good indicator that you’re comfortable enough with the material that a new direction came into your head. It’s not an accident. You’ve found what you actually wanted to say.