I cannot overstate the importance of speech delivery in the overall success of a public speaker. There are two equally important skill sets for public speaking. One is messaging, which includes speech writing, organization, and word choice. The other is speech delivery. Speech delivery can be thought of as a medium because it is how the message is delivered to the audience via voice and body. Aristotle understood this division in his oratorical canon: Invention, arrangement, style, and delivery.
Aristotle believed speech delivery to be secondary to invention, arrangement, and style. The message was more important than the medium. However, we know delivery is important because audiences often judge orators based on their delivery. Excellent delivery can cover up a weak message. Unfortunately, the speaker who leans too much on delivery can become one-dimensional and limited in his or her ability. Beware of speech instructors who teach only delivery.
In this post, I will cover basic rules to help you achieve competency. I distinguish between competency and mastery. Obviously, it is not a great compliment to say, “my, you sure are a competent speaker!” But competency must be achieved before you can achieve mastery. This post will discuss speech delivery in a general sense. Subsequent posts will divide speech delivery into its parts to move towards mastery.
1. Speech delivery is nonverbal communication
Speech delivery is both physical and vocal. Physical delivery is how you use your body, face, and the space around you. Vocal delivery has to do with tone, inflection, volume, and other vocal qualities. Any non-verbal component of your speech constitutes delivery. Most people don’t take a course on non-verbal communication. They learn it through a combination of socialization and nature. A few basic facts about non-verbal communication helps our delivery.
Humans believe nonverbal cues more than verbal cues. And we judge the sincerity of a statement based on how it is said. We also believe that we can assess truths and lies based on nonverbal cues (we can’t). Imagine giving someone a birthday gift. You spend a lot of time choosing and wrapping the present, and you want them to enjoy it. The recipient opened your gift and replied, “Wonderful, I’ve always wanted one of these! Thank you!” How those sentences are spoken matters more than the words themselves. If the thanks have great exuberance and excitement, you believe the words. A monotone phrase delivered with a slack face and no eye contact will leave you thinking the receiver didn’t like the gift regardless of what is said.
If the audience doesn’t trust the sincerity of the speaker, they will not listen or accept the message. Sincerity is of particular importance if you are trying to sell something or someone to the audience. When considering delivery, always make sure they match the message you are seeking to send.
We make decisions about people quickly based on nonverbal cues. One study suggests that most people on blind dates make judgments about their partners by the time they exchange hello. Usually, those judgments are predictive of a second date.
As a speaker, the initial impression you make is predictive of how well the audience will receive the rest of your speech. Start poorly, and it will be difficult to win over the audience later on. Start well, and it is easier to weather problems later on. In other words, the audience will judge the entirety of your speech based on the delivery of the first few minutes.
C. Culture vs. Nature
There is debate over which nonverbal behaviors are learned and innate. As a user and receiver of nonverbal communication, it feels like all nonverbal cues are natural. But that is not the case. If you are in your native culture, it is best to treat nonverbal communication as natural. It is safe to assume the audience will receive your delivery as you intend it. If you are not in your native culture, it is well worth your time to research and observe some common elements of nonverbal communication.
2. Converse with your audience, don’t read to them
We talk differently than we write. People don’t sound natural when they are reading an essay as they do in conversation. Manuscript and extemporaneous modes of delivery embody this difference. Extemporaneous is a sort of expanded conversation. Most audiences react better to conversational delivery, and it is easier to build rapport with an audience via conversation rather than reading. Memorizing a written speech does not mitigate its disadvantages. I recommend using an outline and practicing your speech in sections rather than attempting to memorize a speech word for word.
3. Don’t distract from your message
Physical movement can be a great addition to your oratory skills, but it can also be a huge distraction if not done properly. On the positive side, movement draws attention, and large gestures and use of space connote confidence. Conversely, repetitive motions like pacing or wringing your hands are distracting and make you look nervous. I suggest you start with what comes naturally to you. From there you can fine tune to increase or decrease your gestures and rid yourself of nervous ticks and motions. I usually call this the first rule of delivery: don’t distract from your message.
4. Look them in the eye
In American culture, eye contact is an important sign of respect and caring. The term “contact” itself expresses how we feel about looking someone in the eye. We think of it as a literal connection with other people. Being a good public speaker is all about connecting with your audience, if you do not make eye contact, you are missing a great opportunity and potentially causing harm. It is also not sufficient to scan the eyes of your audience. Find someone and speak to them for a moment and then move on to another. Unfortunately, some advise speakers to avoid eye contact as a method to control the fear of speaking in public.
I could write pages on various topics related to speech delivery, but it is important to have a basic understanding before moving on to more advanced topics. If you are interested in becoming a master orator with impressive speech delivery skills, check back for more updates on delivery.