Public Speaking : Getting The Tone Of Your Speech Right


I spent the weekend getting ready for my most important speech of the year. It’s not a speech for a massive corporate audience, I won’t be on stage at a glitzy industry conference and I’m not even getting paid to deliver it… In fact, the speech that I’ll be giving will be even shorter than a TED talk but to me it will be much more important. Next Saturday at around 3pm I’ll be standing up in a small village hall in East Sussex, in front of the hundred or so guests that will be celebrating my brothers wedding!

It’s the first time in years that I’ve actually been slightly nervous about standing up in front of an audience. It’s not because people know that I’m an actor, a speaker and a communications trainer – although there is certain amount of pressure there! The reason I’m nervous is the fact that in the audience will be all of the most important people in my life… and I want to make them proud. 

It’s not the actual performance I’m worried about, that’s the bit I enjoy! The thing that I’ve found most difficult when writing this speech is striking the balance between humour and sincerity. I’m the Best Man, so there’s an expectation in the audience that there will at least be a few jokes but at the same time I want say something meaningful, not just go all out for laughs! I hope that I’ve achieved that in the speech I’ve written (although I suppose I won’t know for sure until I’ve sat down after the toasts!) so in this blog post I thought I’d share some tips on getting the tone right….

#1. It’s Not About You 

My first bit of advice for you, before you even put pen to paper, is to take a moment to think about who you will be speaking to. Who exactly will be in the audience? What do they want? How familiar are they with your subject matter?… As experts in our fields it’s all too easy to assume that everyone understands a topic as well as we do. However if we fail to adapt our message to the people listening to it, they will quickly loose interest. You wouldn’t give the same presentation on the subject of “personal finance” to a group of chartered accountants as you would to a group of primary school children. You’d naturally adapt – or at least I hope you would! Once you start to really think about your audience – and by that I mean getting as specific as possible – it will automatically start to affect the way that you think about what you are about to say. Put yourself in their shoes. Think in their language. As soon as you do this, you’ll start to naturally find the appropriate tone.

#2. Maintain Your Balance

You can’t please all the people all of the time… but there’s no point in alienating half of your audience just for the sake of it! Modern audiences have relatively short attention spans. We’re bombarded with information 24/7 and even when we intend to give something or someone 100% of our focus, our emails, our social media and our ever expanding “to-do lists” are in the background waiting to distract us. Good presenting and public speaking is all about balance. We need to vary our tone in order to preserve engagement. If you have a lot of detail to deliver, that’s fine but make sure you cover the bigger picture too. Likewise if your subject matter is more visionary make sure that you use specific examples to support your argument. Balance humour with sincerity and rallying cries with quiet reflection. If you look at any famous speech, this symmetry of light and dark will always be present. Think about where you can use this contrast in your public speaking and avoid getting stuck on one note.

#3. Tell Stories

My final tip on striking the right tone is to include stories. Ideally personal ones. I know the idea of revealing things about yourself can sometimes feel risky or inappropriate. However, used in the right ways, stories create a deep connection with your audience. I don’t think you should be airing your dirty laundry or revealing the skeletons in your closet but making things personal is a great way to build rapport. Talk about your feelings. Give parallel examples from your life to the subject matter you are speaking about. Create metaphors. Or simply ask your audience to take a leap into the unknown… “I’d like you to pause for a moment and imagine what would happen if….”. As human beings we’re hardwired for story. They engage our imagination and touch our hearts.

I’ll post a little update once I’ve given my speech on Saturday but in the meantime please share your thoughts on how to get the tone right in the comments box below. And if you’ve got any good wedding jokes I can steal, I’d love to hear those too – just keep them clean! ;-)

Keep shining