I'm sure you’ve heard it a thousand times, but it always helps to hear it again. Public speaking is all about preparation. It’s great to know how to think on your feet, but there’s no question the best presentations are the result of lots of practice.
So what’s the best way to prepare? Well, it depends. The chart above depicts the quality spectrum of speeches with varying styles of preparation.
At the boring end of the spectrum (the end you want to avoid) are the 10% of speeches that are prewritten word-for-word and read out loud from behind a podium. Think most graduation speeches. The people delivering these speeches don’t bother rehearsing the delivery since they assume there’s no need to—it’s all written out. But if you can think back to your high school days, you’ll recall that reading out loud to a room full of people is a lot harder than it seems. The rigid, stuttering delivery falls flat on the snoozing audience.
In the middle of the spectrum are the speeches delivered from an outline. For almost all of the presentations you will give, this is the best way to prepare. Speaking from an outline forces you to use conversational, natural language in your delivery, which makes the speech much more appealing to the audience.
The quality of your delivery will depend entirely on the amount of time you spend practicing. I don’t mean thinking about practicing while sitting at your computer writing your outline. I mean actually standing up in a room, facing a mirror or wall or lineup stuffed animals, whatever, and delivering the speech start to finish. The more times you can talk through your speech entirely, the more confident you’ll feel when the time comes to deliver it for real. Confidence is success.
Then, at the highest end of the spectrum are the greatest of great speeches. Like the worst speeches, these too are written out word-for-word beforehand, but unlike the worst speeches they are rehearsed so many times they practically become memorized. The process of delivering a speech like this has more in common with acting a scene than it does with reading words from a page or prompter. Think Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.
Writing a speech out in advance gives you the ability to choose every word, to predesign every metaphor for the strongest impact. It requires an enormous amount of preparation, weeks worth of it, so save this method for the speeches that really matter.