Around this time of year, the ol’ blarg here sees an uptick in traffic vis-a-vis this one post in particular: Tips for Writing a Graduation Speech. No great mystery, that. It’s graduation season. There are speeches to be given, and for a lot of these poor souls, it may be the first real speech they’ve ever given. Woe to them, but even more than that, woe upon their audiences.
I wrote that post five (help!) years ago when I was in full English-teacher mode, and I stand by those tips for the writing. If you’re gonna give good speech, you’ve gotta start with good words. But there’s more to a speech than just good words, and that’s what I want to talk about today, since I have rediscovered myself as a drama-teacher-slash-acting-coach. And that’s your delivery.
Your stilted, stiff, boring-AF delivery.
You know it, I know it. You go to YouTube and you watch your average graduation speech (or, god help you, you paid attention to the end-of-year speeches last year and now it’s your turn), and it’s entirely interchangeable with any other given graduation speech. The words could be entirely different but the delivery sounds exactly the same, because these poor bastards don’t know the first thing about giving a speech to an audience.
Well, that’s not going to be you, my soon-to-be-putting-high-school-in-the-rearview-mirror friend. You’re going to give a speech that, even if it doesn’t shake them to the very core of their cold, dark souls, at the very least it’s not gonna bore them to tears while they’re listening to it. Because you’re going to prepare for this speech like an actor, and I’m gonna tell you how to do exactly that.
Ready? Me either. Let’s dive in.
- Who are You? No, seriously, who are you? Read the speech you’ve written. Out loud. Does it sound like you speaking? If not, it’s probably because you’re trying to make your speech sound like every other graduation speech out there. Which means you sound phony and cliched. Which means you have a problem.
- But, for real though, Who are You? If you’re a quiet, dry humor type, it’s no good giving a speech full of puns and goofy jokes, or worse, a deathly-serious seize-the-day type diatribe. Your friends and family in the audience know you, and they’ll recognize that you’re putting on airs if you go down that road. But even those who don’t know you can smell a phony a mile away. Check yourself and re-write the speech if it’s not your style.
- Breathe. The mind and the body are connected, for better or worse. The one can’t get by without the other, and your brain needs oxygen to function at full steam. So before you begin, do your brain a favor and focus on your breathing.
- I’m not joking. Stop and breathe. You skipped the last step because you thought it was a waste of time, right? I know you did. You didn’t train as an actor, and this “just breathe” stuff is a bunch of hippie-dippie baloney. But I’m saying it again because it bloody well matters. Stop what you’re doing, stop rushing from one line to the next. Take a deep breath. Deep, down to the bottom of your lungs. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Close your eyes if it helps. Don’t think about the next thing you have to say. Think about taking a deep breath. Then take it, and focus only on that breath while it’s coming in and going out.
- You still aren’t breathing, dammit. Stop playing around. I know this sounds like hot nonsense, and if that’s your mindset, it will be hot nonsense. Stop thinking about what you’re about to say and just breathe. Count to ten if it helps (focusing on numbers, or anything really, is a great way to block out other things — like anxiety and doubt). Do it. Just breathe, before you do anything else.
- Relax. A few steps ago, I talked about the mind-body connection. You fed your brain when you took those deep breaths. (If you didn’t take those deep breaths, back up a few steps and TRY AGAIN.) It’s time to hack the system from the other side. Before you take the stage, relax the body. Lots of us hold tension in the shoulders. Tense and relax them. Likewise the muscles of the neck and jaw. Tense and relax. Scan the body, from toes to the top of the head. Wherever you find tension, tune in and relax it. Tension in the body takes up real estate in your brain, and you want as much brain power as you can get.
- Rehearse to exhaustion. There’s no substitute for repetition. You have to know your speech backwards and forwards. I’m not saying don’t use notecards — by all means, use notecards to keep yourself on track. But you should know your speech well enough to cover 90% of it without even looking at your notes. If you don’t know it, and I mean know it the way you know how to brush your teeth or wipe your butt — which is to say, well enough to do it in your sleep, or if your hair is on fire — you’re gonna blank on it when you’re at that podium with a thousand or more sets of eyeballs trained on you. Archilocus said that “People don’t rise to the level of their expectations; they fall to the level of their training.” Be well-trained.
- Make breathing and relaxing a part of your rehearsal. If breathing and relaxation are normal, regular events for your body, then the body will respond to the effects of those exercises much more quickly. Kind of like turning out the lights and brushing your teeth and bathing in the blood of your enemies cues the body that it’s time to go to sleep for the night, if you practice relaxation, you can relax the body with just a few seconds of focus. Like having a chill-pill on demand. Neat trick — but it takes work on the front end.
- Don’t speak like a robot… I don’t know why, but when the uninitiated get up to speak in front of a crowd, it’s like they forget how people actually talk. They feel like they have to emulate MLK or JFK or some-other-K and they fall into this voice. You know the one. The one that’s loud, so that’s great, but that also has all the emotion stripped out of it in favor of a forced affect that “sounds emphatic”. That odd cadence that isn’t quite Shatner-esque but that isn’t far off, the forced anti-melody that starts high and finishes low on every sentence. That plodding pace from start to finish. Know what that does to people? It puts them to sleep.
- Speak like a human. Ever actually listen to people speak? Not, like, to understand what they’re saying, just to listen to the music of their voices? Try it sometime. Listen to the patterns, to the ups-and-downs, to the way they use just their voices to add emphasis. Then emulate what you’ve learned. Okay, not in the sense of I-want-to-sound-like-this-person-when-I-speak, but rather in the sense of speaking conversationally. To help with that …
- Don’t speak to the “crowd”… I’m not gonna say that one of these steps is more important than the rest, but if one thing was the most important in the list, it might be this. There’s a tendency to think you’re speaking to a crowd. That’s true, but the fact is, you don’t know the crowd, so you can’t speak to the crowd. And for that matter, when people speak to crowds, they tend to put on a manufactured voice. (See above.) Don’t do that crap. Don’t try to speak to everybody. Instead...
- Speak to one person. A friend, a parent, a mentor, a younger sibling. Speak truthfully and honestly, as if you were speaking only to that one person you know very well, and your speech will ring true. Genuine. Not fake.
- It’s okay to pause. For one thing, real people pause in conversation and — flash back a few steps — we’re going for conversational, here. (Unless you happen to actually be the next coming of MLK, which you aren’t.) Pausing creates what I call for actors “think-time.” Which is exactly what it sounds like. Time for you to think about what’s coming next. Also time for the audience to think about what you just said. Time for us to enjoy a moment of silence for once. As a speaker, it’s not your job to bombard our ears with words until we capitulate, it’s your job to communicate a message to us. We understand messages better when we have time to think.
- Hold your place. Here’s an actor’s trick I love. I teach it for cold readings (wherein actors have to use a script but are expected also to show emotion and listen to their partners) and it’s even easier for you since you’ll be standing at a podium. As you speak, mark the next thing you need to say with your finger. This works if you have the whole speech printed out or if you just use bullet points. When you’re comfortable, or when you’re pausing, or while the audience is laughing (at the joke you just told, hopefully), mark the beginning of your next sentence or your next point. Seriously. Just plop your finger down on the page. The podium is hiding your hands anyway. That way when you’re ready for that next idea, you don’t have to look for it on the page — it’s right there ready to go.
- Not to be repetitive, but — don’t forget to relax and breathe. Everybody gets stage fright. Everybody freaks out a little bit. Or a lot. But the actor’s tools are the breath and the body, and if you can master those things, you can master and tame the panic when it tries to take over. Just breathe, and keep breathing.
I promise, I’m not gonna do another graduation-speech related post around here, ever, because with this one I think I’ve tapped the topic out. That being said, I think if you take these tips to heart, your speech will be better than most of the speeches being given at most of the schools around most of the country in the coming weeks, and there’s something to be said for that. And as always — if these tips help you out, I’d love to hear about it.