The Power of Speech

From speech therapists and coaches to motivational speakers, from seminars and workshops to shelves of books and guides, there seems to be no shortage of advice for those looking for know-how in the art of public speaking.

The abundance of material about what exactly makes a good speech, how best to address your audience and how to keep people entertained is a testament to the difficulty that many people have in formulating and delivering a truly impressive talk. For a task that is so central to every event, conference, seminar or corporate affair, there doesn’t seem to be a one-size-fits-all formula.

For meeting planners and conference organisers, a huge amount of effort goes to finding the right speakers for the event, arranging their flights and accommodation. But how much time is spent briefing speakers and ensuring that their message is clear and unmistakable?

The Power of Speech

Slow, dull speakers can kill your audience’s enthusiasm for the topic, while another speaker’s rapid-fire delivery may leave listeners unsure if they have absorbed the main points of the message properly.

Even the pace at which a speech is delivered has enormous implications for the smooth running of the conference agenda. The ponderous speaker who runs way over their allotted time slot is just as dangerous to an event’s rhythm as the quickfire speaker who finishes way ahead of schedule, leaving the facilitator floundering in dead time.

The Power of Speech

Understanding some of the fundamentals of language, how different cultures emphasise syllables and words, the speed at which a speaker talks, how a person uses the stage or the room, how he interacts with his audience, and how his body language conveys the same – or an entirely different – message can have astonishing implications for the effectiveness and value of a speech.

Dr Carol Fleming, a voice coach and communication trainer, explains: “Humans love vocal melody in a speaker, to hear the natural intonations of meaning and enthusiasm. If you dampen that in your speaking, you will lose the audience. While there’s no one particular way to speak or to be in front of an audience, you should allow the music of your language to be evident so that your audience will know and understand you better.”

This approach is supported by other speech experts.

“Stress, emphasis, intonation and melody make up the music of our speech,” says Carole Kornsweig, who is a private speech and communications coach and also the president of New York-based Accent & Speech Solutions.

Audiences have an expectation that a given word will be pronounced the same way every time it is spoken. If it’s not, it can often be jarring.

The Power of Speech

This is especially relevant for non-native English speakers to remember, notes Kornsweig, who has worked with a number of high-profile clients on just this point. “Not all languages have the same rules regarding stress. Some languages will have differences in meaning depending upon the difference in pitch or other melodic features,” she says.

This is true in many Asian languages. But for native and non-native English speakers, keeping an audience engaged, relaxed, and focused on what is being said – not the pronunciation of the word – requires practice and, at times, professional coaching to equalise an accent before a major event.

Intonation is also a key component, says Kornsweig. “When conveying information in a business presentation, the audience will be unconsciously listening for these aural clues to mentally organise the information they are receiving. And, in give-and-take conversational communication, it is important to know how to inflect your sentences so that you and the other converser will know when to begin to speak.”

She suggests that something as simple as listening to news broadcasters or people known for their oratory skills – like Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple – can improve individual speech patterns.

Jayne Latz, president of Corporate Speech Solutions and CORSPAN, says that varying the tone and volume of a speaker’s voice can make the speech music to an audience’s ears.

“Vocal variety is important to keep the audience engaged,” he adds.

As any audience member knows, boredom is often one of the problems.

The basics of proper intonation, emphasis and vocal stress on words and syllables are often overlooked as communication leans toward emails instead of phone calls and computer-aided presentations instead of in-depth discussions.

But, as many speech coaches and therapists will tell their clients, subconscious absorption of information and internal reaction to speeches rely on these building blocks of language to convey overall meaning.

Non-verbal cues

According to Latz , approximately 55 percent of a speaker’s message is communicated non-verbally and there are key things someone can do to improve on the delivery of the message.

Slight changes in demeanour will help send a more positive message, which will ultimately lead to better sales, presentation and business.

Positive behaviour can also enhance a speaker’s message and increase the overall effectiveness of the speech.  In smaller groups, eye contact with listeners reinforces individual points as they contribute to the overarching message. Similarly, facial expressions and hand gestures can paint a clear picture, communicating sincerity and enhancing the connection with groups in any venue.

The use of a room or stage is also vital to an effective speech. Latz suggests moving away from a podium to get closer to the audience, and using the entire stage as a platform by which to engage the audience, who naturally by following you from point to point, will be more receptive to information.

Well-placed pauses between points and after certain sentences are key to sending a message home.

Explains Dr Fleming: “Don’t be afraid of speaking slowly and allowing meaningful pauses to occur. Very few people realise the importance of the pause. It’s the point at which the audience gets to catch up with you and receive information.”

Says Latz: “You want to be sure to use strategic pauses in the right places. If you tell a joke or an anecdote, pause before the important punchline. Pause before telling the audience an important piece of information. Great speakers tend to pause longer.”

The speech itself – whatever the subject matter and whatever the aim – is the main show. As such, says Dr Fleming, before you even formulate your speech, you should clarify the core message.

She adds: “I ask my people, ‘What are you trying to achieve?’ If you aren’t clear about it, the audience won’t be clear.”

Once you’ve established the message, she notes: “Simple, honest and immediate language is the best way to connect and to get that message across to the audience.”

The next component is the audience. “Identify the listeners,” says Dr Fleming. “It’s important that you know them as well as you can and that you try to engage in a personal conversation with the audience. I advise clients to go to an event early and meet some of the people in the audience. This way, you can begin to understand the attendees’ self-interest and identify reasons they should be listening to you.”

By reminding people of their aim in attending the speech – why they should listen – speakers can reinforce the main points and the overarching message of their address. 

When drafting a speech, many professional speakers and coaches advise staying far away from a computer. Because the written word and the spoken word are so different, often what sounds perfect when put on paper can come across wrongly when read out loud to an audience.

Practice also does make perfect, and friends who are willing to give honest feedback can be an invaluable resource for inexperienced speakers.

But most importantly, says Dr Fleming: “Always have a service attitude. Always approach a speech with a feeling of, ‘I am so privileged to be in a position to help these people. How can I do it better?’ You will be amazed at how this simple attitudinal change will diminish any stage fright!”

By focusing on the audience, and not on yourself, you’re already halfway there.



Meeting planners can pass on some common sense advice from Dr Carol Fleming (right) to potential speakers to overcome their nerves.

“People are completely wrong about stage fright. They think the audience is going to criticise them. The fact of the matter is that people don’t care that much. You are overestimating your importance to the audience if you think that giving a speech is about ‘you’. More people need to have a service attitude toward public speaking and toward their audience. The more you care about the audience, the less stage fright you are going to have. It takes the focus off of you and puts it back where it should be – with the people on the receiving end.”



l    Establish and maintain consistent eye contact with listeners.

l    Have good posture while sitting and standing to convey a professional image.

l    Nod or smile to signal understanding of someone else’s point or question.

l    Pause strategically to hold your listener’s attention.

l    Use hand gestures and facial expressions to communicate sincerity and enhance your verbal message by painting a picture.



l    Underestimate the importance of how you look. It’s important to be as well-groomed as possible.

l    Engage in distracting behaviours like playing with a pen cap or twirling your hair.

l    Stand behind a podium. Instead move away from the stand and get closer to your audience.

l    Speak in the direction of a projector or the slides when you are referring to a presentation. Those tools are meant to support you as a speaker, not the other way around.



Scheduling a conference timetable is a tricky business. Much depends on the numbers of speakers, whether there will be questions and how complex the topic is. However, a more fundamental problem is how fast a speaker talks.

The average rate of speaking, when covering material of average complexity, is 145 to175 words per minute (wpm).If someone is speaking at a rate of 115 to 130 wpm, they might be speaking too slowly and could lose the attention of the audience. If someone is speaking from 130 to 145 wpm, they may be speaking slower than average; but this might be necessary if the material is more complex, requiring them to pause more, so that listeners are able to retain the information.

In many situations, audiences may be made of people with any number of backgrounds and language abilities.

In this case, Dr Carol Fleming says that the advice you should give to your speaker is: “Discipline yourself to speak slower than you normally would and simplify your language. Focus on the simple, bare-bones message throughout the speech. You should find a way to repeat it several times so your audience realises that is the core message.”

And get the speaker to pause to give those for whom English is not a first language time to catch up.

“People have to translate what you are saying, so you’ve got to give them a chance to do so,” says Dr Fleming.



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