3 Steps Toward Better Speeches

In the first of a series of educational blog posts, experienced Toastmaster Rob Reid shares three of his top tips for budding communicators!

The 70s rock band Lynard Skynard had a song that went, “Gimme 3 steps, gimme 3 steps mister gimme 3 steps toward the door.”

In this post I’m going to give you 3 steps that you can take toward better speeches:

  1. How to eliminate ‘ums and ahs’.
  2. How to keep within the time limit.
  3. How to speak without notes.

Here’s an extra tip: dividing your speech into three main ideas is a useful approach for a 7- minute informational speech.

Avoiding ‘Ums and ahs’

The first step to a good speech is to avoid ‘ums and ahs’. How often have you heard a speaker with really good message fail to connect with the audience because of distracting ums and ahs?

It’s a challenge to totally eliminate ums and ahs in impromptu speaking like Table Topics and Evaluations but for prepared speeches you should strive to have no ums at all. You can do it!

First you need to be aware of your ums and ahs. At the Toastmasters club I attended in
Vancouver we had an Ah Counter at every meeting who gave a report on each member at the end of the evening. We had a mercy rule where the counts stopped at 10. We used the expression ‘You maxed out!’ We found that new members would often max out at first but over time they would reduce their ums and ahs down to 7 or 8 then 3 or 4 and finally down to zero.

I’d recommend that we have an Ah Counter for at least some of our meetings. If you are concerned about ums and ahs you can also ask your evaluator to count them when you give a prepared speech. There’s an old business saying “if you can’t measure it. You can’t manage it” and I think it applies here.

Here are some tips on controlling ums. Think about when you tend to say um. Is it at the start of the sentence? Listen to people being interviewed: they do it all the time. They’ll start a sentence with “U… I think…” If you are aware of this you can control it – like suppressing the urge to cough.

Ums and ahs also creep into your speeches when you are trying to fill the space between
two thoughts. Be aware of this and if you need a second to collect your thoughts just pause silently. Pauses are good! Most speakers should pause more often.

Also avoid filler words like “sort of”, “y’know” and “basically”. Don’t say things like:
“Basically I’m gonna sort of tell you how to y’know avoid ums and ahs”. An extreme example of this was Caroline Kennedy from the famous US political dynasty. In 2008 she announced that she planned to run for office then in her first major public appearance said “y’know” 46 times in 5 minutes effectively torpedoing her political career before it had even started.

The most important way to avoid ums, ahs and filler words is to practice your speech – out loud – not just silently reading your notes. In particular look for those tongue twisters that tend to trip you up and either practice them until you get it right or change it to something easier to say.

Keeping to time

The 2nd step to a good speech is staying within the allotted time (5 to 7 minutes for most
prepared speeches). This is critical in a speech contest because you will be disqualified if you exceed the time limit. It’s also important for our meetings because it helps ensure that we finish the meeting on time so we can all go to the pub on schedule!

The first step is to write out your speech and practice it. You don’t need to write out every word but include the full content so that you can time it when you practice. You can use a stop watch, or the timer on your phone or computer.

Once you have timed your speech, leave yourself a margin for error – if your speech clocks in at 7 minutes, cut it back to 6. This will make sure that you can stay within time limits without rushing. It will also improve your speech – good writers almost always edit their first draft by removing redundant, extraneous content.

When you are presenting your speech, watch the timer’s lights – that’s what they are for. It may be hard to judge the time. For example you may need to allow extra time for the audience to laugh during a humorous speech.

One suggestion is to use a “safety valve” – a small part of your speech that you can omit to save time near the end of your speech but before the conclusion. The conclusion is the most important part of your speech and you want to deliver in full rather than saying, “Now, in conclusion I will relate the most brilliant insight that you ever – but I see were
out of time.” NO! – use the safety valve so you can preserve your conclusion.

Speaking without notes

The 3rd step on the speaker’s journey is to speak without notes. Most people use notes in their first few Toastmasters speeches and that’s fine but later projects ask you to speak without notes.

At first you need notes as a security blanket but this leads to a tendency to look down and lose eye contact. Often you’re not even reading the notes, just checking to see that they’re there. Speaking without notes is a bit unnerving at first but it can be very liberating, like a child taking the training wheels off a bicycle.

Get familiar with your speech like an actor learning lines in a play. I find it helps to write out the speech even though you don’t use the notes while speaking. The act of writing helps organize your thoughts and start committing them to memory.

But you don’t need to memorize it all word for word. I recommend getting your introduction and conclusion down cold. These are the most important parts of the speech and you want to get them right.

For the body of the speech simply make sure that you can remember your key points and get them in the right order and then you can ad lib and not worry about the exact words. Then practice your speech – first by using your notes and then without the notes.

You may have noticed that the key to all of these steps is to practice your speeches. So I’ll sum up by saying that 3 steps to improve your speeches are practice, practice and practice!

Practice to eliminate ums and ahs, practice to stay within time limits, and practice in order to deliver your speech without notes. If you take these 3 steps you will be well on the way to becoming a better speaker.

This post was originally an educational speech delivered at our club! For more like this, why not visit us?

5 thoughts on “3 Steps Toward Better Speeches

  1. Brilliant tips Rob!

    Have you thought about submitting this to the Toastmasters Magazine?

    I look forward to reading more of your posts in the future.

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