Drama, Part Two: Natural Speech
Episode #5 of the course How to write a great speech: Linguistics, drama, and rhetoric by K.C. Finn
One of the big differences between the way we talk every day and the idea of ‘giving a speech’ is that we often feel it puts us in an unnatural position, thrown in front of a crowd, and expected to talk at length. In reality, if we were to add up how much talking we actually do on a daily basis, giving a ten, twenty or even sixty-minute speech would seem like a drop in the ocean. But because it feels different, we often tend to write and present it differently too.
Lesson Five examines the path back towards sounding natural, both in the physical delivery of our speech and the words we use to craft it. Once again, we borrow some techniques from the theatre world to look at dialogue and delivery to make sure that we still sound like our authentic selves when we have to make a speech.
1: Start with the Language
Whilst speechmaking often takes place in formal settings like wedding ceremonies, conferences, conventions and during business presentations, that doesn’t mean that you need to sound like a robot to deliver a smooth and professional speech. Try to maintain some of these natural speech features when you actually write your speech, as much as the formality level of your setting will allow.
Here’s a couple of natural speech features that it’s still okay to include:
• Reasonable contractions. It’s so much more natural to use ‘it’s’ than ‘it is’ and using the long form of contractions like ‘wasn’t’ (‘was not’) ‘couldn’t’ (could not) can make your speech sound clunky and mechanical.
• Colloquial or slang terms. Provided your audience will understand them, you can still use familiar terms like ‘OMG’ or ‘dude’ to add lightness and humor.
• Questions and pauses. You can still involve your audience with a questioning tone or a short moment for them to think about what you’ve said.
Exercise: Look at any drafts, sentences, or paragraphs that you’ve been working on for your speech. Do you see a lot of clunky extra language that you wouldn’t normally use? Apply the checklist above and see if you can cut down on the formalities to keep the words flowing.
2: Add the Voice
Speeches are meant to be said out loud, and it’s never wise to be reading your speech out loud for the first time at the actual event. When you read aloud, stumbling over your words is often an indication that there is an error in the line or something that is unnatural to the way you usually speak. Here are a few techniques you can try to find those issues and fix them fast:
1. The Standard Read. Read the work out loud in a steady voice with a regular rhythm.
2. The Fast Read. Read the work, one sentence at a time, getting the words out as quickly as you can whilst still trying to be correct.
3. The Rehearsal. Read the work with the emphasis and sentence rhythms that you have developed from Lesson Four.
The Rehearsal read stage is one that we will return to several times from this point in the course onwards, so don’t worry if it doesn’t all fall into place at once. As any great actor will tell you, it takes many, many rehearsals to reach a perfect speech!
Exercise: Once you’ve got a paragraph or two to work with, try the Standard Read aloud to see if there are areas that trip you up, and amend as necessary. Then try a Fast Read, and do the same again.
3: Add the Physical
Another important thing to consider in natural speech is your own posture and breathing capacity. Whilst we’ll learn a little more about breathing and projection in the next lesson, for now, we can take a physical approach by being active and actually taking up the same physical position that you would for the real speech. Here are some important tips to consider:
• Plant your feet. Do not walk or wander in your initial rehearsals until you’re more sure of yourself and your message.
• Keep a straight spine. This gives you more air in your lungs and allows your words to flow more naturally.
• Pick a focal point. Even in rehearsal, having a specific spot to train your eyes on will prevent distractions that lead to hesitation or losing your way. This also helps you hold your head up and not appear nervous by looking at the floor!
Exercise: Stand up (or position yourself as you would for the real speech). Consider the posture and/or stance that you want to read in, and try to stay in that position. Tackle the Rehearsal read now with any stress, emphasis, and timing you feel you’ll need for the real thing. Note down any areas where you’re still having problems getting the words out naturally.
In Lesson Six, we’ll end the Drama section of our learning journey with a physical exercise designed to help calm your nerves and raise your voice, quite literally!
For now, act natural!
For more information on the technical aspects of writing a natural speech, this article about crafting authentic dialogue has some fantastic tips.
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