Bryan Garner on Words

Pro Tips on Speech Prep: How to enhance audience experience and make your points stick

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Illustration of a woman speaking to an audience by Brenan Sharp

Photo illustration by Brenan Sharp

You’ve been asked to give a speech. Given that you see yourself as a professional speaker—you’d certainly better see yourself that way—you accept. How can you maximize your chances of performing creditably?

Prepare, prepare, prepare. Of course, if it’s a subject you’re well-versed in, you may think you can wing it. Don’t try. Take at least a few minutes to jot down your three main points. Make sure you have three main points. You must have something worth saying. Write your points out as complete sentences—interesting sentences. Try your best to make the points nonobvious.

Then, for each point, plan one good fact and one good illustration of the point. One of each is enough. Both the fact and the illustration must be brief, clear and telling.

To begin in an engaging way, think how you might inject some humor into the first 60 seconds. Rack your brain on this one. It’s best if you can deliver your levity in a deadpan way, as if you’re not expecting laughter. If it doesn’t come, you won’t look foolish. If you’re good at inducing laughter that’s somehow germane to the topic, you’ll have the audience in the palm of your hand.


Before a speech, you can do several things to enhance everyone’s experience of it. Ask the organizers how many people are expected—and encourage them to get good estimates, not rosy projections.

Be sure not to overset the room: Few things are more dispiriting than having 25 attendees in a room set for 200. If you’re realistically expecting 25 attendees, set the room for no more than 30. Have extra chairs available nearby in case you have an overflow crowd. It’s better for a room to feel packed, not vacant.

Even a small group of, say, five attendees can seem perfect in a well-arranged small conference room—perhaps at a round table where everyone can see each other.

Try to avoid a room setup in which any participants aren’t facing you. If the room is set up with round tables, half the participants will have their backs to you. Some might turn toward you, but some might not—and that’s uncomfortable because they’ll be the most likely to get distracted or distract those facing them. If you must have round tables, it’s best to put seats only at half-rounds so that everyone is facing the front.

If the tables are arranged into a U-shape in which you’re at the top of the U, avoid seating people inside the U. Anytime participants are facing each other, instead of the speaker, distractions will abound. And they can have a ripple effect across the audience.

Recently, I showed up to survey a room where I’d be speaking. I was one of several plenary speakers during a three-day conference, and the tables were set in a large square. Speakers were expected to sit in the middle of one side of the square, a full 80 feet from those at the far side. By removing the 6-foot table where I was to sit, I was able to enter the square and speak from the middle, approaching each participant at various points. Afterward, several told me what a dramatic difference this had made.

Another point to consider is acoustics. You’ll need to be heard. If it’s a smallish room with fewer than 20 attendees, you’ll probably be able to project well enough for everyone to hear comfortably. Or if it’s a law school classroom accommodating up to 120, you should be fine: Usually those rooms are acoustically designed for the unamplified voice.

But if you’re in an office building or other conference room with seating for more than 30, you’ll almost certainly need a microphone.

Which brings us to another point: Try to avoid being placed at a lectern with a fixed microphone. Request a lavalier mic. It’s not that you want to wander; it’s just good to be closer to the audience without a huge encumbrance in front of you.

If you’re giving a one-hour talk, you may need no seat at all. If you’re giving an all-day seminar, as I frequently do, you’ll want a four-legged wooden stool. It’s simple and versatile, and (most important) the audience will be able to see you.


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Bryan A. Garner, the president of LawProse Inc., has given more than 100 speeches a year for each of the past 26 years. He is the author of many books, including Garner’s Modern English Usage, also available as a mobile app. Follow on Twitter @bryanagarner.

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