How to Practice your Speech
Read earlier posts in the How to Create the Best-Speech-of-Your-Life series.
Do you ever wonder why politicians, actors, and comedians nail their speeches every time? Why do we feel spell-bound at their mastery of the spoken word?
Because they’ve practiced.
Politicians deliver the same stump speech over and over again. Actors memorize their lines. Comedians test their jokes until they’re perfect.
What separates them from you?
Why are they better?
You might think of many reasons but typically we underestimate the hard work that leads to mastery. They’re comfortable being uncomfortable. They stumble. They fail. They hear themselves say the same thing over and over again. They make minor tweaks. They keep going. You can too. Use the tips below to practice speaking like the pros.
Record speech audio
Can you remember the words to the happy birthday song? It starts ‘happy birthday to you…” I bet you remember the rest. I bet you have hundreds, maybe thousands of songs memorized. Why?
Because you’ve heard them hundreds of times. You sang them dozens of times. Why not use the same technique to memorize your speech?
Record yourself reading your speech. Most phones have an audio recording app built-in. Use it. Print out your speech. Read it word for word, using all the pauses, vocal variety, and pacing you’ve added from earlier articles in this series.
Listen to your speech
Once you have a recording, listen to it – in your car, on a walk, before rewriting your speech. My favorite place to listen is driving down a scenic country road. The best ideas jump out at me when I see a beautiful landscape. Keep a pen and paper or note-taking app close by so you can take notes when you stop. Major issues will smack you across the face. Subtle vocal ticks, short pauses, the wrong pace may take a few listens to pinpoint. Listen to yourself to improve your performance and as a side effect you’ll improve your writing too.
Embrace your awkward voice
At first, you will feel like the stick figure below.
You are not alone. I felt embarrassed the first time I listened to my speech. Now I get sick of hearing myself. Every time. But listening works. Every time. It’s the fastest way to memorize a speech. Still, I don’t like listening to my own voice, particularly not in high-fidelity. You might feel the same, but you have to decide: “Will discomfort prevent my great performance?” If you’ve never used this trick, you won’t know how much it’s a game-changer until you try. Try listening for daily for a week before your next big speech. In time you will feel the power like my happier stick figure friend below.
When you get sick of hearing yourself, you don’t need to listen very much. You know your material. Embrace the awkwardness. Your speech will be better. Jaws dropping trumps discomfort.
Target listening 1-3x per day
How often you listen depends on how much time you have to prepare. If you have more than two weeks, listen once per day. You may need a little more or less often. If you have only a week, listen two to three times per day. I listen once on my drive to work and once on my way home from work. If I’ve rewritten anything, I record new audio before leaving to drive home. Once I can recite the speech by heart, I dial my listening back to once per day, maybe every other day. A few days before the speech, I listen more frequently again.
Practice in an empty room
This is another strange practice technique. You’ll feel weird speaking to an empty audience. But you’ll master your movements, your eye contact, and your gestures. Read How to Infuse Acting into Your Speech if you haven’t added those elements yet. If you’re already recording audio of your speech, practicing in an empty room is easier. You’re used to the sound of your own voice. You’ve dealt with the awkward feeling of talking to yourself and thinking “I sound like a crazy person.”
If you think it’s insane to go to these lengths to prepare for a speech, I don’t want to hear you speak. Also, I understand. Practicing takes time. But not practicing is not respecting the audience’s time, my time. Your message is much more impactful with practice.
I’m not above using any tricks to improve performance. If you were training for a marathon you’d run. If you were training for a fight, you’d spar. If you were preparing for the SATs, you’d take a practice test. Find an empty room, a parking lot, your bedroom, anywhere and practice your speech. I like an empty room best because it’s just me. As awkward as it feels, it’s a little less awkward than running into someone who sees you talking to yourself.
When you’re practicing in the empty room, focus your practice sessions on different elements at different times. I use a training schedule like below.
- Just speaking without notes
- Specific movement
- Specific eye contact
- Planned gestures
Specific and planned means I’ve already written down the movement, eye contact, and gestures on my written speech text. The acting article mentioned earlier has more on this. When you’re practicing now, your time should be spent on executing what you’ve already planned. If you haven’t thought through your movement, gestures, eye contact, bring your printed speech and use your first practice session to take notes and plan these elements. In the future, you can plan ahead by visualizing the room when you’re writing.
Setup a camera at the back of a large room and videotape yourself performing your speech from beginning to end. Most phones will do the job. Watch the videotape to hear your volume and detect awkward or small gestures, purposeless movement, and poor hand positions.
Test your vocal volume
Watch your videotape. Can you hear yourself clearly? If not record it again. Practice breathing deeply, expelling forcefully, and reading your sentences loudly with a single breath. Then use your abs to project to the back more forcefully. Use techniques in the power section of the Acting article to practice. Now can you hear me?
If you have a friend at your speech and are concerned about the volume of your voice, ask them to sit in the back. Instruct them to give you a signal depending on how loud you are.
- Thumbs up if they can hear you (‘all good’)
- Both index fingers pointed up if they can’t hear you (‘speak up’)
- Index fingers pointed down if you’re too loud (‘never happens’)
Make small gestures bigger
If you’re raising your index finger to indicate “#1” (your first point), it shouldn’t be in front of your abdomen, chest, or shoulder. Stretch way up high to bring that index finger to the sky like Speaker B in the image below. That’s a big gesture. It signifies confidence. Even if you don’t have confidence now, you’ll have more later from these big gestures. Plus, it’s easier for your audience to see. Use this method of magnifying gestures for anything that looks weak or small on video. It will feel uncomfortable. Keep practicing.
Eliminate purposeless movement
When you’re walking back and forth, side to side, over and over again just to move, that’s purposeless. Don’t move just to move. Move because it helps tell the story. Read how to add movement to add meaningful motion to your story. This is one more monster benefit of watching a videotape of yourself. When speaking it’s hard to feel when you’re pacing back and forth nervously, but the videotape visual screams at you to practice controlling your movement. Score another win for taping yourself.
Replace weak hand positions with stronger ones
Holding your hands in your pockets or folding your arms does not look good unless you’re making a point (ex. huffing and puffing with arms crossed). You’ll spot other poor hand positions easily. They look weak and unconfident. Instead use stronger positions like clasping your hands low in prayer position, holding your hands behind your back or at your side, or hold one hand across your abdomen. Practice one or two of these default positions to return to in between your gestures. It helps to have two so you don’t look awkward from standing in the same position for so long. To take it up a notch, watch film of presidents or even good actors. My favorite is Martin Sheen in the West Wing. Watch his hand positions like the stick figures below. Mimic them and you’ll look “presidential”.
Visualize the speech
Visualization is a ra-ra, wacko, empty technique for wannabe overachievers. Visualization is used by top athletes, musicians, and actors. Which is it? Decide for yourself. Any time I train for anything important, visualization allows me to get more mental reps in without as much physical and mental stress as live practice. Plus, you can watch your performance from different angles. You’re the director of your visualization. For your speech, image these two vantage points.
- See your speech from way back, third-person view, like you’re watching you the speaker and the audience through a wide-angle lens
- Watch your performance from the audience’s perspective like the three stick figures in the image below
Visualization is useful throughout your preparation for your speech. Running through the mental imagery of your speech cements your performance in your mind and enables you to fine-tune last-minute adjustments. When possible, visualize in the morning or mid-day so you don’t lose sleep stressing about your performance.
Read speech text before bed
Read your speech word-for-word before bed if you have only a few days to memorize your speech. I pair reading before bed with listening to the audio recording of my speech to supercharge my memorization turnaround time.
The insomnia-prone may skip this technique for your health and sanity. For me, reading before bed produces fistfuls of innovative ideas, sometimes in a single reading on a single night. The downside is all those ideas makes my mind race and it’s hard to slow down. To slow down and remember, I capture the minimum essential elements of an idea in a note on my phone. I leave the heavy lifting for processing these ideas until the morning. Still, sometimes I type paragraphs with one thumb.
Use reading before bed for short-notice memorization. Use it for creativity with caution. It’s a double-edged sword I squeeze tight with both hands.
Complete a dry-run
Perform your speech for just your mentor
Read How to Get Feedback for Your Speech. Once you have a mentor, ask them to watch your speech, takes notes, and give you feedback. Like the feedback article, ensure you’re prepared with a pen and paper to capture their feedback. Don’t argue. You can choose not to use all their feedback. After the first or second meeting with your mentor, memorize your speech using by listening to audio like described earlier or whichever memorization technque works best for you. Your first two feedback sessions can focus on your purpose, theme, and structure. You can also just send your text to your mentor for this. By the third meeting deliver the memorized speech to get input on the finer points of delivery.
Practice with a live audience
Do you have a group who will watch an early version of your speech before your big performance? Family members? Co-workers? Friends? Most of us don’t have people willing to congregate all at the same time just to watch us practice a speech. But you’re in luck. There’s a club for that.
Toastmasters teaches basic communication, public speaking, and leadership skills in a safe environment. We don’t make toasts. We don’t make toast. But the idea of a person delivering a toast that catches your ear and brings a tear to your eye is a moment we can all imagine. Most toasts are…blah. Play-by-play after a wedding toast is a great pastime for a seasoned Toastmaster. Because they know they can deliver a better speech. And most best-man speeches should be flushed down the toilet.
If you want to practice your speech in a safe place, find your local Toastmasters club. They’re everywhere. The quality varies. If you’re near Malvern, PA, stop by Cerner Toastmasters. We’re the best club in Chester County.
Once you have a group lined up, practice your speech with them at least a couple weeks before your big performance. If you deliver it at a Toastmasters, you might only deliver a portion of your speech due to time constraints. You’ll get great feedback on that part of the speech and have more confidence when you hit that section live on gameday.
Plan a practice schedule
Plan the month
Print a calendar for the month. Write when you’ll do the following:
- Listen to your speech (suggestion – daily)
- Record audio (suggestion – at least weekly)
- Videotape yourself (suggestion – every week or two)
- Meet with your mentor (suggestion – every week or two)
- Dry-run with a live audience (suggestion – two weeks before your speech)
- Make minor edits (suggestion – first thing in the morning or after work)
- Rewrite bigger chunks (suggestion – weekends)
- Your big performance day
Most people don’t plan a schedule. It’s easy to dismiss as neurotic. But most people also don’t practice enough. It’s much easier to plan and execute as two separate steps than to plan on-the-fly and hope you’ll execute the plan. We don’t remember to execute fleeting good intentions. You don’t have to go to the extremes of the schedule in the image below. That’s overkill for most people. Just write what’s reasonable for you. Any written schedule is better than no schedule.
Plan each day
Now that you have the month planned with major milestones like your live dry-run and speech date, plan a daily schedule to practice and polish your speech.
Get a piece of paper or create a note and mark times for the following
- Live practice
- Listening to speech audio
As you see in the image below of my typical practice schedule, I split writing into creative writing and editing. Creative work like adding humor, improving stories, or generating new ideas is easiest for me in the morning when I’m fresh. I can edit any time of day so I save it for when I’m tired. As I get closer to the speech date, I spend less time writing and editing and mostly make minor tweaks.
On weekends I block longer chunks of time for creative writing, again preferably in the mornings. I normally skip listening to my speech and live practice on the weekends.
We once had a CEO at my office who was an exceptional speaker. When he grabbed the mic, energy filled the room. He was a salesman. He was an executive. He practiced. More than that, he knew his role was to earn your time. One time he gave a two-day training to all the managers at our office. He kicked off the event with an hour-long speech on culture change since his company had just bought our business. What surprised me was his mindset. Most executives approach that speech like you (the audience) are lucky to be in the room with them (the executives). Or they just don’t practice. Not this guy.
CEO: How many people are in the room?
Audience: About a hundred
CEO: And let’s say your time is worth $100 an hour…
CEO: So that means for this hour to be worth it to the company, I need to deliver a $10,000 speech.
CEO: Whatever I say must be worth more than $10,000 of your time.
Me: (jaw-dropping – who is this guy?)
And when he delivered a two-hour speech to five-thousand of us, I bet he planned to deliver a million-dollar-speech. And that’s why I practice. Your time is too valuable to waste. Most speakers don’t respect your time and it shows. Don’t be that human. Practice.
Read more posts in the How to Create the Best-Speech-of-Your-Life series.