Geek Girl's Guide: Giving Speeches

We get lots of opportunities to present our ideas to other people, either formally or informally. I've been thinking about this for a few days, because my beautiful girl Rowen just turned 12, and was asked to speak in church last Sunday. Terrifying, right? Getting up in front of roughly 250 people to expound, even for a couple of minutes, can be downright overwhelming. 

I've given a lot of talks & speeches. I did both speech and debate in high school, and participated in speaking contests outside of school for VFW, Farm Bureau, National Young Leaders, and others. I won prizes. I got to travel. It was awesome, and speaking has become one of my favorite things. I want to share a few secrets I've developed over time. In fact, these are the rules i use every time I prepare and deliver speeches.

image source: colleen simon,

image source: colleen simon,

divide Your Content into 3 segments

Preparing for and delivering speeches is a LOT easier when you divide up your main idea into a few sub-topics. Sometimes the points are explicitly spelled out ("I'd like to share three ways we can improve our racquetball game."), and sometimes they are implicit, simply by the verbal transitions you make.

I recommend that if you're going to spell out your points, that you use no more than 3. The reason for this really comes down to the short-term memory of your audience. You aren't giving a quiz at the end. They should be able to write down a few of your statements, but nobody can be expected to remember more than 3 "topic headings," because these aren't what stick. What sticks in the heart and mind are your stories. Even your most sympathetic audience member will get distracted, even if your speech is only 10 minutes long. 

By your 5th point I'm wondering again what the first one was, and then I'm thinking, ok, they said they had six, so just one more and then we're done! 

I know, not cool of me. But there it is. The exception to this rule is if your speech is accompanied by a PowerPoint that lists all your points and repeatedly refers back to the list as you step through them. Content plus context is king of them all.


Every great speech has outside references, whether they are specific quotes, scriptures, song lyrics, or more oblique references to world evens or history. Quotations are necessary. Use one in every segment of your speech. Remember from above, that what sticks in the heart and mind are the stories. Each quote is a story. You can even consider framing each segment of your speech around a quote or its main idea. Here's how.

When you're speaking without additional aids (like a PowerPoint), you need to guide your audience carefully through your points using repetition and reinforcement. Think of it like a sandwich: 

  • Explaination #1: In the first explanation, you'll provide backstory, as well as context and a lead-up to the content of your quotation. Do not underestimate the power of backstory.

  • Quote: Deliver your quotation with power, verbally emphasizing the keywords. Do not quote anything for more than ~30 seconds straight. 

  •  Explanation #2: In the second explanation you can provide analysis - why you chose this, as well as the all-important link back to the lives and circumstance of the audience.

Here's an example from a talk I gave this past February, for the explain/quote/explain method as I illustrated the relevance of the hymn, "Onward, Christian Soldiers":

(Explanation 1)

Here are the words of the great Christian battle-hymn, “Onward, Christian soldiers,” The first verse: “Onward, Christian Soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before. Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe, forward into battle, see His banners go!”

This beautiful song was written in 1865 by an Anglican curate named Sabine Baring-Gould. She needed a song to use as a processional for the town’s children to march to during Whitsuntide - the Anglican celebration of Pentecost - and sat and wrote this song in 15 minutes. It now has a place in Christian hymnals around the world. 

At the height of the second world war, with Britain embattled by German bombing, and just four months before the United States would officially enter, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt met to agree the Atlantic Charter. As part of that meeting, a church service was held for which Prime Minister Churchill chose the hymns. He chose "Onward, Christian Soldiers" and afterwards made a radio broadcast explaining this choice:


We sang "Onward, Christian Soldiers" indeed, and I felt that this was no vain presumption, but that we had the right to feel that we were serving a cause for the sake of which a trumpet has sounded from on high. When I looked upon that densely packed congregation of fighting men of the same language, of the same faith, of the same fundamental laws, of the same ideals ... it swept across me that here was the only hope, but also the sure hope, of saving the world from measureless degradation. 
— Winston Churchill

(explanation 2)

Mr. Churchill’s words apply to us beautifully. Just as there in 1941 sat the congregation that represented the hope of the world - allies gathered in defense against a worldly tyrant, so sits here in this congregation today the hope of the world, gathered to the Standard of God against the spiritual tyrants, in the defense of our homes and our families.

The backstory for this quote is fascinating, both the story of the writing of the hymn, and then the story of its use at the height of World War II. in fact, i would say the backstory is what gives the quote its real impact in its implications for us today. I probably did an hour of research after I found this quote, and I am SO GLAD I did - my own life is better for knowing this, and I'm happy I was able to share it. 

Do as much research as you can on the story behind and around your quote. More than just who said it, who were they? Where was this said or written? What other things did they say ore write? what connections can you draw from their life or circumstance? what did other people say about it?

The quote itself, of course is from one of the great orators of the 20th century, so it has power on its own. But when that's spoken with the same conviction it was said originally, hundreds of people can be stirred by it again.

You can see the second explanation is pretty short. Essentially the task here is to provide that final connection between the life and world of the quotation itself, into the lives of your listeners. My goal was to draw a comparison between the circumstances of war as it was fought then, and the spiritual war we're fighting now.

As a side note, this is the beginning and middle of the second of my 3 points in this speech. Transition-by-quote is an awesome way!

like you mean it

It sometimes helps to read or listen to great speeches of the past as you're preparing. There's a reason these are great speeches, and that doesn't dim over time, regardless of how antiquated some of the words might seem. You've been given the rare opportunity to have the undivided attention of your listeners (10 or 1,000, doesn't matter), and you can change them forever by what you say. Connect your words to the WHY and the HOW - to them. 

One of the finest speeches I've ever heard was given by Suze Orman, the author and personal finance expert. She talked about personal finance, sure, but also about self-direction, self-love and perseverance, and I was moved to tears by the end. Not only is she a great speaker, but she was able to connect ideas for me, and sent me home a stronger person for it. And she was talking about checkbooksYour topic isn't dull, and neither are you. Prepare it like you mean it, and say it like you mean it, and they'll remember.

Save the Opening for last

In your preparation, I recommend saving the opening for last. Here's mine:

My 5th great grandparents, Caroline and John Butler, were baptized in 1835 in Simpson, Kentucky. At the Prophet Joseph’s command, they gathered to unite with the Saints in Iowa, and then in Nauvoo. They crossed the plains and finally gathered to Utah, where they settled in Spanish Fork. They faced persecution and poverty, and remained stalwart to the end. So with all our ancestors, literal, or spiritual. It is in that spirit - that legacy of gathering, of love, of unity, that I would like to speak today.

I actually wrote this opening about 10 minutes before I stood up to give my speech (not that I would recommend saving it THAT much). The last line of your first paragraph is the key transition from opening to the core of your speech. Here's where you say, "I'd like to provide three tips on how to improve your racquetball game." I was a little subtler, but connected the small story to the topic right there at the end of the opening. 

Make sure your opening doesn't weaken your speech. If it does nothing but "make the audience more comfortable," leave it out. As far as an opening joke, if your audience doesn't know you well, you have a 50/50 chance of a joke falling flat, and I wouldn't risk it. Your opening should take no more than ~10% of your speech. So for a 10-minute speech, think 45-60 seconds. And now for the most important bit, which I've saved for last.


We were actually in the car on the way to church while she was trying to figure out her opening (hm, did she inherit that?). And I've been thinking for days about this exchange.

I said, "Maybe just introduce yourself, and then go into your first thing."
She said, "What about, 'Hi, I'm Rowen Sprague. I am giving my first talk in church, so I know it isn't...'"
"No. Don't apologize."
She tried it another way, "'Hi, I'm Rowen Sprague, and I don't know why I was asked...'"
She was frustrated when I interrupted her again. "You don't ever need to apologize for what you are about to say."

As women, it's a sort of social instinct to make ourselves less - maybe it feels ingratiating, or polite, or that if we lower ourselves by apologizing for our work, we'll lower their expectations of us. But no. They won't like you better because you told them your stuff was crappy. You own that stuff, you have a right to be where you are, you're prepared for it, and you have a message to deliver. You didn't come share this just for their approval. Don't hide your light.

I mean it. This goes for any time you stand up in front of more than 2 people, write on your blog, post a photo in an online gallery, or talk in a meeting. You can never use any of these phrases ever again:

  • "I know this isn't..."
  • "I didn't..."
  • "I'm sorry, but/because"
  • "I can't (insert some technology reason)"
  • "I did this at the last minute" (or any reference to how little time you had, or even how much time you had, but that it still isn't any good for whatever reason)
  • Blaming your own shyness
  • Blaming your own inexperience at presenting/speaking/showing up "I'm not very good at..."
  • Blaming anyone else, even as a sort of joke (i.e. the boss told me I had to)
  • Comparing yourself or your presentation/material a great master.

Okay, I think you get it. Yes? You are not more by seeming less. You are more by preparing with that audience in mind, and then delivering with conviction. Don't hide your light. And don't ever, ever, EVER apologize for it.