A Gift for Speakers and Would-be Speakers

The holiday period is a time to relax and recharge your batteries for the challenges to come. If you’re a professional speaker, it’s an opportunity to think about what you do and how to do it even better. And if you’re someone who’s new to public speaking, it’s a time to seek advice about how to do it well.

One of the most demanding stages of preparing to speak in public is working out what you want to say, and turning the material you come up with into something that will interest and inform your audience. With these thoughts in mind, I offer you a modest holiday gift: a medley of tips on how to prepare – and write – a speech or presentation that will make an audience sit up and listen.


Think about why you’re giving your speech or presentation. What do you want your audience to do, know, or feel, as a result of experiencing it? Is this the best format for achieving your aims? For example, speeches and presentations are a very inefficient means of sharing lots of content – consider an emailed pdf instead!


Who are you talking to? What’s in it for them to listen to you? Think about what will interest them, and start planning your presentation from there.


Don’t drown your audience in content. Work out your key message, and stick to it. Write it out in the form of a proposition – a brief sentence that asserts or denies something about your content. ‘My day at the zoo’ is not a proposition. ‘All zoos should be banned’ is a proposition. Propositions make content interesting because they express a point of view. Use your proposition as the spine for your whole speech or presentation.

Beginnings, middles and endings

Begin with something that grabs your audience’s attention and keeps them listening. Never make more than three points. And end by repeating your key message.


People are easily bored, so keep your audience with you from start to finish by summing up, clarifying and using verbal signposts throughout.

Write your script

Even when speaking ‘off the cuff’, write out a draft in full first. And then break it down into sections and keyword notes later. If you read from a script, design it in short, well-spaced sentences, and use a large font.

Keep it concrete

Avoid abstract language. Give plenty of examples, and use stories, case studies and analogies to illustrate and clarify your points.


Your speech or presentation will almost certainly be better received if you avoid using PowerPoint. But, if after writing it you feel the need to show some slides, use PowerPoint sparingly!


Rehearse out loud, and time yourself. Don’t memorise word-for-word, but practise speaking from your notes and looking out at your audience.

Anticipate questions

Put yourself in your audience’s shoes, and write down any questions you think they will want to put to you when you’ve finished speaking. Prepare your answers, but be ready to deal with the unexpected, too!

PS This post is one of a number of contributions to Angela DeFinis’s first “blog carnival” Visit her website to read the other guest blogs – http://www.definiscommunications.com/blog/public-speaking-and-the-holidays/


  1. Great post, Martin. Lots of good tips and considerations.

    But why so down on PowerPoint? Yes, it’s often misused. (Usually misused?) That said, when used properly it’s an incredibly powerful tool. Given the option, if visuals are used effectively, I’d almost always want a speaker to use visuals to accompany a presentation. Just take a look at some of the great TED talks with visuals.

    I do understand where this is coming from. Most PowerPoint presentations are horrible. But I think it’s best to help teach others to learn how to use visuals more effectively, rather than throw out this powerful tool altogether.

    I get the feeling you’d agree…! Steve

  2. I’m with Steve – Your other points cannot be disputed, especially the first three on really thinking about your message. So many presenters ignore this stage!

    Yet I think it’s unfair to blame PowerPoint for its misuse – perhaps a more accurate piece of advice would be “don’t use bullet points”? Would you agree that using an acetate of bullet points is just as bad?


  3. Martin Shovel says:

    Steve and Jessica thanks for your comments. They’ve inspired me to start working on a new blogpost about PowerPoint – so watch this space.


  4. Dayle van Zanten says:

    Hi Martin,

    As a primary school teacher, with over 26 years expereince with students of all ages, but predominantly with those in the 11-12 year old age group, I have sat through many long (and often boring) PowerPoint presentations. This actually led me to explicity teach my students how to use PowerePoint effectively.

    The first point is always to begin with the speech/content, which covers consideration of purpose, audience, structure etc. Only once this has been developed, are the students allowed to begin work on their slides. Other than headings/subheadings, the students are not encouraged to use words (and certainly, not to copy their content onto their slides). Instead, they are encouraged to find pictures, charts, diagrams etc that support and match their content. I also set a limit to the number of slides they use – basically, the number of digits on their hand, or 5 slides.

    Through the teaching and modelling process, we play around with animations and transitions, however by the end of it, they come away understanding that simple is best! They learn that in a PowerPoint presentation, the slide is their visual support, but their voice (and content) is the star of the show.

    This has worked well for me in the classroom, and more importantly, it has given my students a structure that they are able to follow. Their PowerPoints have become tighter, more concise and much more interesting.


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