How to Give Your First Speech

Carl R. Burgchardt

McGraw-Hill Online Supplements

This page contains the text of a supplement to The Art of Public Speaking, by Stephen E. Lucas. It is provided on a single web page to allow for easier printing.  Scroll through to read the full text or click on the underlined section title to view a particular area.

Introduction
Why do this assignment?
How do I select a topic?
How do I focus my speech?
How can I make my speech more interesting?
How should I organize my speech?
How should I prepare my speech for delivery?
How should I practice my speech?
How should I behave during my speech?
What about stage fright?
Conclusion

Introduction

You have just enrolled in a public speaking course, and on the first day of class your instructor announces that everyone will soon be giving a short speech. You are probably thinking, "What am I supposed to do? I have barely started this course, yet the teacher wants me to stand up in front of my classmates and talk! I don't have any speaking experience; I haven't read more than a few pages in the textbook; and I don't even know how to begin!" If these are your thoughts, you are not alone. Most beginning speech students have precisely the same reaction. Fortunately, giving your first speech sounds a lot harder than it is. The purpose of this pamphlet is to provide the information you need to do a good job on this assignment: how to select a topic, how to focus your speech, how to make your speech more interesting, how to organize your speech, how to prepare and practice your speech, how to behave during the presentation, and how to cope with stage fright.

Why do this assignment?

Many public speaking instructors ask students to give a short, simple speech very early in the course-sometimes in the first week. This initial assignment is often called an icebreaker speech because it is designed to "break the ice" by getting students up in front of the class as soon as possible. Instructors know from experience that much of the anxiety associated with public speaking comes from lack of experience in giving speeches. Once students have broken the ice by giving a speech, they feel less anxious and begin to develop sound public speaking habits that lead to confidence.

In some classes this initial assignment is called a diagnostic speech because the instructor will use it to diagnose your strengths and weaknesses. Your teacher will then have a better idea of how to help you become a more effective speaker. Still other classes label this assignment an introductory speech because its purpose is to introduce yourself or a classmate to the audience and, in the process, give you an introduction to the art of public speaking.

Regardless of what the first speech is called, its goal is to give you valuable public speaking experience in a low-pressure, supportive setting. It is also a good way for you to meet your classmates and begin to learn who they are. The more familiar you become with your classmates, the more comfortable you will feel the next time you give a speech to them.

How do I select a topic?

Your instructor probably will give you a clear explanation that specifies the sort of topic you should select. For your initial presentation, many teachers prefer an exercise in which students break into pairs, interview each other, and, on the day of the speech, introduce the other person to the class with a short biographical talk. A variation on this theme is to have students go to the library and do research in newspapers or magazines concerning what happened on their birth dates. The purpose of this speech is to report the major national or international events of that day. Yet another possibility is the "brush with greatness" speech, in which students explain how they met a celebrity or visited a famous place.

There are many other approaches to the initial speech. You might be asked to give a speech titled "My Pet Peeve," in which you explain something that particularly annoys you (bad drivers, obnoxious roommates, phone solicitations, etc.). Or, in a more positive vein, you might give a speech about a personal object of special significance, such as a cherished book, a musical instrument, or a photograph. These assignments, like those discussed in the previous paragraph, are designed to give the audience insight into the speaker's background, outlook, personality, or goals.

No matter what the assignment for your introductory speech, do your best to understand precisely what your teacher requires. In order to do well in the course, you must fulfill the speaking assignments exactly. If something is unclear about the expectations for your speech, be sure to ask for clarification.

How do I focus my speech?

Whether your instructor assigns a specific topic or provides a number of options, you will need to gather material to include in your talk. After you have settled on a particular subject, be certain the focus of your speech is narrow enough to conform to the time limit. One of the most common mistakes students make on their first speech is to try to cover too much material. Not only does this cause the speech to go over the time limit, but it results in content that is too general or superficial. So you should select a limited amount of focused material that is illustrated thoroughly.

For example, you cannot give a tightly focused speech about "music" in a two- or three-minute presentation. There are simply too many facets to this subject. A better idea would be to give a speech on "My Most Unusual Experiences as a Member of the Marching Band." This allows you to make a few well-developed points about a clearly defined subject. On the other hand, avoid the temptation to narrow the focus of your topic too much. Few listeners would be pleased to hear a two- or three-minute discussion of advanced trumpet-playing techniques. Such a speech would be too specialized for most classroom audiences.

How can I make my speech more interesting?

You should strive to make your introductory speech as creative and interesting as possible. But how do you select material that will please the audience? We know from experience that certain general traits tend to make a compelling speech. While your talk need not include all of these traits, it would be helpful if it incorporated some of them.

First, think of ways to make your speech mysterious or suspenseful. Radio commentator Paul Harvey has mastered the technique of telling a fascinating story about the accomplishments of an important individual but not revealing the identity of that person until the very end. Motorists who listen to these tales on their car radios are frequently unwilling to leave their vehicles until the mystery person is named. Such a technique could easily be applied in your first public speaking assignment. If you were telling the audience about your brush with greatness, for example, consider withholding the identity of your celebrity until the end. As your story unfolds, tantalize your classmates with clues about your celebrity's gender, physical characteristics, special talents, and the like, but keep the name a secret until the last moment. The idea is to hold your classmates on the edges of their seats as they listen.

In addition to mystery and suspense, audiences are naturally interested in dangerous situations, adventure, and drama. If your task is to introduce a fellow student, for instance, find out if he or she has ever been in danger. Suppose your classmate went on a white-water rafting expedition and fell overboard. The story of how this person was rescued would be very dramatic. Or perhaps last summer you rode a bicycle across the full length of your state. The details of such an adventure would make excellent material for a speech of self-introduction. If you think about it, every person has faced risk, done the unusual, or triumphed over hardships. Try to find ways to include such fascinating experiences in your speech.

Another way to make a speech interesting is to use colorful, descriptive language that appeals to your audience's senses. If you were giving a "Pet Peeve" speech about your messy roommate, for instance, go beyond the general statement that "My roommate never washes the dishes." Describe the mountains of filthy plates that teeter in the sink; delve into the details of dried- out gravy welded to the dishes. Or suppose you are speaking about a cherished object-say your dog, Wolfgang. Make your speech come alive by vividly describing how Wolfgang wags his tail when he is excited, or how he rests his head on your knee when you are watching television. Colorful and concrete illustrations are invariably more interesting in a speech than dull language and abstract generalizations.

Students often ask about using humor to make their speeches more interesting. Audiences love witty remarks, jokes, and funny situations, but humor is only effective when done well. It should flow naturally out of the content of the speech, rather than being contrived. If you are not normally a funny person, you are better off giving a sincere, enthusiastic speech and leaving the jokes out. All speakers should refrain from humor that is tasteless or not directly relevant to the topic. It almost goes without saying that you should avoid jokes that embarrass specific individuals or negatively stereotype groups of people. The best kind of humor pokes fun at ourselves or at universal human foibles. Everyone in the audience will be able to enjoy that kind of humor.

How should I organize my speech?

Some speeches seem to organize themselves. If your instructor asks you to tell a story of your brush with greatness, you will relate what happened when you met a celebrity or visited a famous place. The basic structure for such a speech is chronological----"this happened; then this happened; then this happened."

Now to give your first speech

Speeches that tell a story are excellent ways of giving students experience talking in front of the class, but not all speeches follow this format. Suppose your instructor asks you to give a two-minute presentation introducing one of your classmates. You could organize the most important biographical facts about your subject in chronological order, but this might result in a dry, superficial speech: "In 1976 Alicia was born in Cleveland, attended Garfield Elementary School from 1982 to 1988, and graduated from Hoover High School in 1994." A better way of structuring your remarks might be to discuss three of the most important aspects of Alicia's life, such as hobbies, career goals, and family. This is called the topical method of organization, which subdivides the speech topic into its natural, logical, or conventional parts. Although there are many other ways to organize a speech, your first presentation will probably use either chronological or topical order.

Regardless of the subject, Your speech will have three main parts-an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. What should a good introduction do? First, it needs to engage the attention and interest of the audience. You can attract your classmates' attention simply by walking to the front of the room and beginning to speak in a loud voice. The hard part is arousing their interest. Your first few sentences are vitally important. There are many methods you can use in the opening lines of a speech to engage the interest of your audience. You can tell a story, state the significance of your topic, open with a quotation, pose a question, present a startling fact or statistic, or relate how the topic affects the audience directly. The purpose of all these methods is to create a dramatic, colorful opening that will make your audience want to hear more.

If you were giving a "Pet Peeve" speech about rude behavior at movie theaters, you might begin your speech like this:

Let's play a psychological game called "word association." When I say the word "movies," what term immediately pops into your head? If you answered "rudeness," then perhaps you share my biggest pet peeve-the impolite behavior of some moviegoers. This opening line would probably intrigue the audience because it asks them to play along with a game. The answer of "rudeness" gets the audience's attention because it is so surprising. Moreover, once the audience members grasp the idea, they will be able to relate to it. At this point many people in the audience may be smiling and nodding their heads knowingly.

In addition to gaining attention and interest, the introduction should orient your audience toward the subject matter of your speech. In the example just mentioned, we move quickly from the initial question to a clear focus on the concept of a pet peeve. Then the precise nature of this pet peeve is specified as impolite behavior in movie theaters. In longer speeches, your introduction might need to add some brief background information or define key terms, but your first speech will probably not need to do either.

Near the end of the introduction, you should clearly state the specific purpose of your speech. In the "Pet Peeve" speech, you might say, "Today I will try to make you understand exactly why rude behavior at the movies irritates me so much." Immediately after announcing your specific purpose, you should provide your audience with a "road map" for the rest of your speech by previewing or forecasting the major points. In the "Pet Peeve" speech you could say something like, "I will discuss the three types of rude behavior that are commonly found at the movies-talkers, noisy eaters, and people who drench themselves in perfume or cologne." Once you have completed these steps, it is time to move on to the body of your speech.

The body should follow a distinct organizational format such as chronological or topical. In your first speech, usually all you need to worry about is keeping your major ideas related to each other and clearly focused. The main points should directly illustrate or explain the overall topic, yet each point should develop different aspects of it. Suppose you were introducing a classmate. All of your points should provide interesting biographical information about that person. Relevant subjects might include his or her family, relationships, academic major, home town, hopes for the future, special talents, preferred food, favorite music, job, hobbies, and the like.

Remember to limit the number of main points. If your speech has too many points, your audience will struggle to recognize the most important ideas. In a two-minute speech, you probably won't have time to develop more than two or three main points. Once you have selected those points, make sure each one focuses on a single aspect of the topic. For example, if your first point concerns your classmate's home town, don't introduce irrelevant information about her job or favorite music. Save this material for a separate point, or cut it from the speech altogether. Try to make the structure of the body stand out by introducing each main point with a transition statement. In a hypothetical speech of introduction, you might begin the first main point by saying: "Megan grew up on a farm in the southern part of the state." The second point might commence along these lines: "Living and working on a farm led to Megan's great love of animals, especially horses. In fact, her favorite hobby is Western-style horseback riding." You have now let your audience know that the first main point is over and that you are starting the second one. The third main point might begin as follows: "Horseback riding is more than just a hobby for Megan. Her academic major at the university is equine science, which concerns the care, management, and business of horses." When you have completed your final point, you are ready to move into the conclusion.

In the conclusion, you will need to accomplish two tasks. First, let your audience know you are about to finish your speech. Second, review the main points. If possible, try to end on a dramatic, funny, or thought-provoking note. Suppose you were giving a speech about national events on the day you were born. You might finish like this: "in conclusion, a lot of bad things happened on June 23, 1970. In a single day, our country suffered a flood, a forest fire, and an earthquake. I hope you can see why some people consider my birthday a national disaster!" Such an ending ties up the presentation and allows the speaker to finish on a strong note.

How should I prepare my speech for delivery?

Once you have selected an appropriate subject and organized the content into a clear structure, it is time to prepare your speech for delivery. A common impulse of many students is to write out their speech like an essay and read it word for word to their listeners. The other extreme is to prepare very little for the speech-to wing it by trusting to your wits and the inspiration of the moment. Neither approach, however, is appropriate for your introductory talk. Reading your speech from a manuscript runs the risk of poor eye contact with the audience and a stiff, unenthusiastic delivery. On the other hand, ad-libbing the speech is a recipe for disaster. The outcome is usually a disorganized talk that is embarrassingly short.

The best approach for your first speech is called the extemporaneous method, which combines the careful preparation and structure of a manuscript presentation with the spontaneity and enthusiasm of an unrehearsed talk. Your aim in an extemporaneous speech is to plan out your major points and supporting material without trying to memorize the precise language you will use on the day of the speech.

The extemporaneous method requires you to know the content of your speech quite well. In fact, when you use the extemporaneous method properly, you become so familiar with the substance of your talk that you need only some brief notes to remind you of the points you intend to cover. The notes should consist only of key words or phrases that jog your memory, rather than of complete sentences and paragraphs. This way, when you stand up in front of the audience, you will tell them what you know about your topic in your own words.

Prepare your notes by writing or printing key terms and phrases on index cards or sheets of paper. Some instructors require students to use index cards because they are small and unobtrusive, don't rustle or flop over, and can be held in one hand, which allows the speaker to gesture more easily. Other teachers recommend sheets of paper because you can get more information on them, there are fewer objects to handle, and it is easier to print out computer files on paper. If you are unsure what your instructor prefers, be sure to ask well before your speech is due.

Whether you use index cards or sheets of paper, your notes should be large enough to see clearly at arm's length. Many experienced speakers prefer to double or triple space their notes because this makes it easier to see the notes during the speech. Write or print only on one side of the sheet of paper or index card, so you don't have to flip it over before moving on to the next one. Number your notes in case you accidentally drop them. Finally, use the fewest notes that you can manage and still present the speech fluently and confidently.

At first, the extemporaneous method may seem very demanding, but when you think about it, you use aspects of this method all the time in your personal conversations with friends. Do you read from a manuscript when you tell your friends an amusing story or relate the events of a date or a trip? Of course not. You recall the essential details of your story, and you tell the tale to different friends, on different occasions, using somewhat different language each time. You feel relaxed and confident with your friends, so you just tell them what is on your mind in a conversational tone. You should try to do the same thing in your first speech.

How should I practice my speech?

Delivering a speech extemporaneously calls for significant practice to get it right. Because most of the speeches you will give in your public speaking course require the extemporaneous method, you should make a concerted effort to use it well in your introductory assignment. When you become truly proficient at extemporaneous speaking, your audiences will be amazed at your excellent eye contact and sincere, spontaneous delivery. But, of course, you need to practice in the proper way. The first time you rehearse your speech, you will probably struggle. Words may not come to you easily, and you might forget some things you planned to say. Don't become discouraged. Every time you practice, it will get easier.

Rehearse the speech in a loud voice. This is more inconvenient than silently looking over your notes, but the physical process of speaking the words out loud will aid you in mastering the content of your talk. Once you have a fairly good grasp on the speech, practice in the presence of other people and ask for their reactions. You will get a much better sense of how well you know the speech if you can deliver it to friends or family members. Giving the speech to a live audience when you practice will also make it easier to present it later in class.

As you practice, time your presentation with a stopwatch or clock. Many instructors enforce strict time limits on speeches. Be sure you understand the minimum and maximum times allowed for your presentation. Because of nerves, most people talk faster during their first speech than when they practice it. When you rehearse at home, make certain your speech runs longer than the minimum time limit. That way, if your speaking rate increases when you present the speech in class, you will not end up with a speech that is too short. Don't be surprised, however, if the timing of your speech varies somewhat as you practice. It would be a bad sign if your speech took exactly the same amount of time during each rehearsal, because that would indicate that you were reading the address from manuscript or had memorized it verbatim.

How should I behave during my speech?

When it is your turn to speak, move to the front of the room and face the audience. Assume a relaxed but upright posture. If you are standing, plant your feet a bit less than shoulder width apart. Allow your arms to hang loosely by your side or in front of your body. Before beginning your speech, carefully arrange your notes. Then take a moment to look over your audience and to smile. This will begin to establish rapport with your classmates from the start.

Once you are into the speech, feel free to use your hands to gesture, but don't worry overly about planning your gestures ahead of time. If you are not a person who ordinarily uses your hands or body expressively during informal conversation, then don't try to fake it while speaking in public. It is particularly important during your first speech to allow your hand gestures and facial expressions to flow naturally and spontaneously from your feelings.

You should do your best to avoid nervous mannerisms such as twisting your hair, wringing your hands, shifting your weight from one foot to the other, rocking back and forth, tapping your fingers on the lectern, or jingling coins in your pockets. No matter how nervous you feel, try to appear calm and relaxed. Your instructor does not expect a flawless performance. If you have some nervous habits, she or he will help you identify them and suggest remedies for later speeches.

During your talk, try to look at your classmates as often as you can. One of the major reasons for speaking extemporaneously is to maintain eye contact with your audience. In your own experience, you know how much more impressive a speaker is when she or he looks at the audience while speaking. If you have practiced the extemporaneous method of delivery and prepared your notes properly, you ought to be able to maintain eye contact with your audience most of the time. In a small public speaking class, try to look briefly and evenly at each person in the area. Be sure to look to the left and right of the room, as well as the center, and avoid the temptation to speak exclusively to one or two sympathetic individuals. When you are finished speaking, your classmates should have the impression that you tried to use your eyes to establish a personal connection with each of them.

Beginning speech students typically make three kinds of mistakes with their voice: they speak too softly, they speak too quickly, and they do not pronounce their words distinctly. Therefore, the most important elements of voice that you should practice for your first speech are loudness, rate, and articulation. If you do well on these, most other aspects of vocal delivery will fall into place.

For your first speech, concentrate on projecting your voice to the back of the room. Unless you see your audience cringing and covering their ears, you will probably not be too loud. Second, fight the temptation to race through your speech. Speak slowly enough that your audience can comfortably comprehend your sentences. Third, try to articulate each word clearly, but don't over-enunciate, which might make you sound snobbish or odd. If you make a conscious effort to speak up, slow down, and speak clearly, you are on the right track to an effective presentation.

What about stage fright?

Although we don't feel nervous conversing with our friends in private, many of us are anxious about giving a formal speech to a group of strangers in an unfamiliar situation. Most students experience stage fright before giving their first speeches. This is entirely normal. You can be sure that your fellow students share the same fears. In fact, one way you can help your classmates with their nervousness is by being a friendly, receptive listener. When others are speaking, look at them, smile and nod encouragingly, laugh at their jokes, and, in general, show that you are interested in what they are saying. When it is your chance to speak, you will appreciate similar behavior in return.

As your speech class progresses, you will get to know your classmates better, and you will become increasingly comfortable addressing them. As you complete your public speaking assignments with success, your confidence will grow. If you are like most students, by the end of the class you will feel considerably less anxious about speaking in public.

You are probably thinking, "All of that is fine for the future, but what about now?" First of all, realize that a certain amount of stage fright is actually a good thing. Many actors, musicians, and athletes believe that nervous energy enhances their level of performance. In fact, there are many stories of such people performing poorly on occasions when they are not nervous. The more experience you gain as a speaker, the easier it will be for you to use your nervousness to give an energetic, enthusiastic, animated speech.

Even then, however, you may still feel unpleasant physical symptoms on the day of your speech. Sweaty hands, dry mouth, blushing, dizziness, and upset stomach are some typical symptoms of speech anxiety. Fortunately, most of these symptoms will subside once you are into your speech.

In addition, you are likely to be in better physical condition for speaking if you follow a few commonsense tips. Get plenty of rest the night before the speech. Avoid dehydration by drinking water throughout the day of your presentation. If possible, try to eat a solid meal a few hours before class. If you have butterflies in your stomach before delivering your speech, sit quietly in your chair and take several slow, deep breaths. This will relax you and reduce your discomfort by getting more oxygen to your brain. The best advice for stemming stage fright has already been discussed-practice, practice, practice. Rehearsing your speech the proper way is the single most effective way to build confidence and to combat stage fright.

Conclusion

This pamphlet has attempted to provide the basic information you need to have a good experience with your first speech. All of the topics discussed here are developed in much more detail in your textbook. As your public speaking class unfolds, you will gain a more sophisticated understanding of the communication process. For now, keep your introductory assignment in perspective. Remember that your instructor does not expect perfection. You are not a professional speaker, and this is the first speech of the class. Do your best on the assignment, but don't be afraid to have fun with it. One purpose of this speech is to learn more about you, so let your personality shine through. Plan what you want to say, organize the material clearly, practice thoroughly, and use the extemporaneous method of delivery. You may be surprised by how much you enjoy giving your first speech.

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