10 Ways to Improve Your Speech Delivery

By Alyson Connolly

Collected and summarized in one handy place, here are ten ways to improve your delivery in your speech or presentation and overall improve your public speaking.

Analyze Your Script

So you feel like you need to work on your delivery. But maybe it’s not all in how you’re saying it. It may be what you’re saying.

Many of my clients seem to believe that their speeches are set in stone once they feel they’re done writing them. But you can’t think of them that way. A speech is a living document. You should always be able to go back and improve it.

In analyzing your script, first answer these questions:

  • What is your main point? Can you sum up the main point in one sentence?
  • Why are you speaking to the audience? What makes you the expert?
  • What do you want to say? You’re giving a speech to preteens about the benefits of staying in school. Are you giving a good presentation of your message?
  • Is it relevant to your audience? You believe that what you have to say is important for the audience to hear — but is it important from their perspective?
  • What does the audience need to hear? How will the audience be better off having heard what you say?
  • What is their call to action? What do you want the audience to with your information? You want them to stay in school? How do you do that? You let them know that they can talk to school counselors and find support if they’re having difficulty with their courses or attending school.
  • Do you have a hook? For example: Ask, “Have you ever thought of dropping out of school?” The audience doesn’t have to answer. The question just arouses their curiosity. The audience can just think about it and answer the question in their own heads.
  • Do you have a powerful quote? Use a quotation by someone you and the audience admire.
  • Do you have a visual? Bringing out a visual will arouse curiosity. It also unites you with the audience when you glance briefly up at it.
  • Do you have an interesting fact or statistic? This can grab the audience’s attention.
  • Can you compliment the audience? You might start with “It is an honor …” Or after you’ve watched them listen to the previous speaker, “Wow, you really are an attentive audience.”
  • Can you add some local flavor? Talk about the local baseball team winning the championship. Just stay away from anything controversial that may be going on locally.
  • Can you tell a relevant story? Start with one that relates to the topic.
  • Could you use sound effects? For example: The sounds of kids talking and having fun could start your speech about staying in school.
  • Can you tell a joke? People love good jokes. Just don’t use jokes that are off-color or that pit one group against the other.
  • Does your ending create impact? This is even more important than the hook. It’s the last thing the audience will hear from you.

I’ll throw in one last bonus question: Does your speech have all the essential components of a good speech? Remember PIE:

  • Point: State your point near the beginning of your speech.
  • Illustrations: Give examples for why you think your point is correct or important.
  • Explanations: How do your examples relate to and develop your point?
  • Conclusion: Return to the main point and write a conclusion with impact so the audience will remember you and your message.

Personalize Your Speech

Who’s speaking in front of the crowd? Guess what. It’s you. So by all means, go ahead and personalize it. Even a professor used to writing extremely impersonal papers can show some flair in the lecture hall. Everyone loves a story. Talking about yourself gives the audience a glimpse into your life. If you’re trying to convince a bunch of kids to stay in school, tell them about a family member who dropped out. What happened to that family member?

Your inflection has to be personable as well. When you practice it out loud — you are doing that, right? — be sure you sound like yourself. Do you sound like you would when speaking to a friend? Are you connected to the topic or somebody who is just saying a bunch of words?

Emphasize Key Words

When your speech is still just on the page, all the words generally look the same, right? Some are longer, some are shorter. It’s not immediately obvious what’s really important in all that text. You have to emphasize the words or phrases that your audience really needs to listen to.

What are the words that you want to lift off the page — that you want the audience to really hear and be impacted by? Use a highlighter or pencil to make them stand out.

What words would you want to emphasize in the following line?

Staying in school is important in securing a good job.

You can find your own way of marking up your speeches. Here’s mine: If you want to emphasize using volume, write the words you want louder in CAPITAL letters and put in parentheses ( ) when you want words to be quieter.

There’s more to do than adding emphasis. You may need to adjust the words or phrases themselves, depending on the room. If you’re speaking to a group of preteens, telling them their school is among the “preeminent” schools in the district, that word may fly right over their heads and forget your point while they try to figure out what that word means in their heads. Better to use a word like “important,” which is more common and part of their vernacular.

Change Up Your Pitch, Tone, and Word Duration

When you listen to music, you don’t want to hear the same note over and over. That would be terribly boring. The same goes for your speech. Yeah, I know you’re not singing, but variety in your pitch — raising and lowering the frequency (“note”) of your tone — helps your audience hold on better. Varying your pitch makes your speech more interesting and helps add spice to your presentation. You don’t want to give a monotonous speech that drones on.

So what’s the prescription for varying your tone? Well, that’s something you have to figure out for yourself. You can definitely play around with pitch, tone, and word duration (how long you say or draw out the pronunciation of words) and find what combinations work for you. For example:

  • Pitch: “Staying in school is important to securing good jobs.” You might raise the pitch when you say school and jobs. Make a notation where you want to raise and lower your pitch — I use a swoop, like a Nike swoosh.
  • Tone: How do you express your emotions and what you really mean through your words? Tone can change meaning. Does your tone match what you are saying? Are you warning the audience about the perils of dropping out of school or are you encouraging them?
  • Word duration: Play with how you pronounce or draw out words. You might say, “Staying in schoooool is important to securing a good job,” or “Staying in school is important to securing a good jooooob.

Breathe!

Everything about speaking really comes back to breath. Breathing is the driving force in literally everything we do — but especially speech. Your speech is coming from that breath. So it is a huge advantage to know how to use your breath properly, with as much efficiency as possible.

First, don’t rush things. Take the time to breathe — doing so also gives the audience time to register the last thing you said.

You always need to have enough breath to last to the end of each sentence.

When you breathe in, visualize your breath dropping deep into your lower abdomen. Your lungs are expanding like a balloon, and if you watch a balloon inflate, it inflates from the bottom. On an exhale, your abdominal muscles are contracting and pressing toward your spine.

Say the first sentence in your speech. Take the time at the end of the sentence to breathe in fully. Don’t rush it. Go through a good chunk of your speech like this. I know it may seem tedious, but this kind of focus on breathing really helps. You’ll notice that each sentence is different in length and you may have breath left over. That’s okay. Exhale it and inhale again for the next sentence.

Repeat the speech in real time, and soon you’ll learn to take as much breath as you need for each sentence. Remember to visualize the breath dropping low.

Other breathings tips:

  • Don’t hold your breath. The audience will too!
  • You can mark your breaths on your page with a slash (/). I have clients who mark up their speeches with BREATHE scrawled all over them.
  • Take a breath after a period or a comma. This is how we speak in real life.

Slow Down Your Pace

You may be a fast talker in real life, and that might work just fine for you. But a speech isn’t real life. A speech is a performance. You’re in the public speaking world now. The audience won’t understand or register what you’re saying if you’re just barreling along. Plus, audiences get tense when people speak fast. They may even stop listening because it’s too much work to try to follow.

Antidote? Pretty simple. Try this when practicing: Pronounce each word clearly and deliberately. Form each vowel and consonant in all the words. This will slow you down. But that isn’t how we speak normally. We don’t give each word the same weight. Now imagine you’re speaking to your friend. Increase your pace but make sure all your words are clearly pronounced and that your pace isn’t so fast that your friend can’t understand you.

Land Your Thoughts

Here’s a scenario: You’ve practiced and know your speech very well — so well, in fact, that you forget that the audience hasn’t. They’ve never heard it before. So give them time to register what you’ve said before you go on to the next thought.

Think of the audience as newcomers to your country, and English is their second language. It’s very new to them. They can only understand you if you speak slowly and with clarity. (Don’t get me wrong — you should trust their intelligence, but not that they can follow you if you mumble.)

To practice, you could try moving your arms to emphasize:

“I have constantly hit my quota, and I have hit it again this year.”

You might gesture with your right arm out to the right when you say, “I have constantly hit my quota” and then gesture with your left arm when you say, “and I have hit it again this year.”

Note: You don’t have to gesture like this when you actually give your presentation. This physical gesture gives you the time to slow down when you practice.

Another way to make each thought clear is to move — physically move to a different spot on the floor. For example:

“I have constantly hit my quota, and thanks to a large order from overseas I have hit it again this year.”

You might move to the right on “I have constantly hit my quota,” move to the left on “and thanks to a large order from overseas,” and move to center stage on “I have hit it again this year.”

Again, you don’t need to actually move when you give this speech. It might make the audience dizzy. The point is to practice so that moving helps to make each thought clearer in your mind, and that will transfer to the audience.

Use the Power of the Pause

Pauses allow you time to take a breath and gather what to say next. So use them liberally!

Pauses also build suspense. “You want a good job? (pause) … then stay in school.”

Try the following:

  • Pause after a comma.
  • Pause after a sentence.
  • Pause before a new paragraph.
  • Pause when you show a visual.
  • Pause for laughter.
  • Pause after a rhetorical question.

Avoid fillers! When you pause, there is no need to say anything — especially “um” or “uh.” Really, just stop talking. It’s all you have to do. The pause will only take a few seconds. The audience will wait. Filler words don’t give the audience time to register your last sentence. Plus, it’s annoying.

Record Your Presentation via video and voice

I don’t advocate standing in front of the mirror when you practice your speech. We look in mirrors to check ourselves out, sure. But when you practice in front of the mirror, you’re still checking yourself out. You can’t help it. And that takes the focus off your speech.

You can play it back and really see you the way the audience will see you. See the next entry for questions you can ask a colleague if you have someone watch you.

Of course, your voice is the most important part, not that great tie that works with your shirt. Recording audio of your practices makes it easy to find those voice habits that might be detrimental to your impact without getting distracted by the visuals.

Listen for vocal habits and patterns. For example, listen for upspeak, which sounds like you’re turning your sentences into questions.

“Staying in school is important in securing a good job.”

That’s a statement. When you upspeak it into a question, it sounds like you’re not sure, as if you’re saying, “Is that okay for me to say?”

Listen for times when you drop the ends of sentences:

“Staying in school is important in securing a good …”

What? We can’t hear that last word. The energy drops and falls, splat, like pancake batter on a griddle. Dropping often happens when you run out of breath. Make sure to grab enough breath to last you till the end of the sentence.

Listen for filler words. Saying “so,” “like,” “you know,” and “right” too many times. You may be surprised how these words can creep into your speech. When you feel a filler word coming on, stifle it.

Ask a Friend or Colleague to Watch and Listen

Give this person specific things to watch and listen for, too. He or she might just say you did “great,” which really doesn’t help you. And even if you were great, even the most polished presenter can always improve.

Here are some things to have that person pay specific attention to:

  • Do you address the audience at the beginning without looking down at your notes when you say your name?
  • Are your points concisely strewn together?
  • Does your hook catch the audience’s attention?
  • Are you rushing? Can your helper understand everything you have to say?
  • Can your helper hear you from different areas of the room?
  • Are you emphasizing key words or do they all sound the same?
  • Are you speaking your speech in the same (monotonous) pitch or are you using vocal variety?
  • Does your tone reflect your meaning?
  • Are you ending your presentation with a bang?