How To: Best Ways to Prepare for a Speech

How To: Best Ways to Prepare for a Speech

How much practice is enough?

By Christopher Mortenson, ACB, ALB

Does the following scene ring a bell with you? It is the night before your Toastmasters club meeting and you are signed up to give a speech. You have a subject, a title, and a few topics and stories you want to cover. Unfortunately, you have been busy lately and haven’t quite put it all together, and tonight you want to do other things besides working on your speech, such as school work, household chores and family stuff (and then there’s TV). You know you aren’t ready to speak, but will more practice make a difference?

For many years I have listened to speeches with a critical ear, and I can not remember once thinking, “That speaker probably practiced too much.” However, I can confidently say most speakers could have done at least a little better with more practice. 

Practice Makes Perfect
Last spring I decided to compete in my club’s tall-tales contest, with the ultimate goal of taking my speech as far as I could in the speech-contest hierarchy. I put a lot of time and thought into writing and refining my story. By the time I performed it in my club-level contest, I had rehearsed that speech at least 30 times and I won the contest. I continued to practice the speech more and more, sometimes before friends and family who would always offer me constructive criticism. I also recorded myself on video, carefully reviewing the tape to see where and how I could improve.

                    “Members shouldn’t wait to be completely
                    comfortable before ‘taking the plunge.’”

I went on to win both my area and division contests, and I met my goal when I competed at the district level. Before I was done, I had practiced or performed the speech more than 50 times. I contribute my success to three things:

  • I wrote the speech with a conscious effort to play to my particular strength, incorporating several accents and voices – a special talent of mine.
  • It was well-constructed with a good combination of repetition and humor (although it needed to be a little better to win at the district level).
  • I knew that speech cold – I could recite it by heart at a moment’s notice (and I still can, almost a year later). I didn’t have to think of the next word or phrase because I had already memorized everything, and had spoken the words so many times that they came automatically and effortlessly. All that practice time was well spent.

Cost-Benefit Analysis
How much you practice can greatly impact the quality of your speech. Practice costs time, and time is both precious and limited. How much time you should invest in rehearsing your speeches depends on the purpose and audience for the speech, as well as your experience and skill level. Following are some guidelines that work for me. You will have to figure out what works for you. Keep in mind that very rarely is a speech over-rehearsed.

For a competition or an important presentation for my job, I will practice the speech a lot and start talking through it as early as possible. Like most busy people, I know if I don’t set the time aside and make it happen, it probably won’t. How much actual time it takes will depend on the length of the presentation, how familiar I am with the topic, and also how much speech-preparing I have been doing lately – it takes longer if I am rusty.

When preparing for a regular Toastmasters manual speech or a short informal presentation at work, I like to talk it through four-to six times. That seems to be about the right number of rehearsals to get the feel for the speech flow and to get the length right. Some sections, such as the opening, may need more practice than others, so I focus on the tricky chunks. I’m usually ready when my last two practices journeyed from start to finish with no stops and without need for any changes. To be really comfortable with the speech takes me about 10 to 15 run-throughs, spread over a few days (and not just the night before). 

Quality Time
How you practice your speech is as important as how much. Practice time should be used as effectively as possible. Find a quiet spot where you will not be interrupted, and where you can speak in a reasonably loud volume without inhibition. The more similar it is to where you will present your speech, the better for practicing movements and gestures, using visual aids, and even practicing eye contact. But sometimes you should just practice wherever you can. I have spent many hours sitting in my car or wandering empty hallways practicing for my next speech while one of my kids was finishing a karate lesson or scout meeting.

Once the speech starts to become refined, you may wish to seek feedback from others. In my experience, spouses and children can be effective if they somewhat represent the intended audience (and aren’t too tired of your request to listen to yet “another boring speech”). Friends and co-workers are usually better than family members, and fellow Toastmasters are often best because they know how to give constructive feedback and they sympathize with you (and don’t be surprised if they ask you to reciprocate).

The importance of practicing at the actual location of your presentation depends on how familiar you are with the environment, how important the speech is, and whether or not you have complex visual aids. Pay attention to the lighting, how much space you have, and any technology like computers and projectors that need to be set up ahead of time. If possible, run through the whole speech using all of the visuals and props at least once and practice the tricky spots several times. For less formal occasions (including Toastmasters speeches), there is no need to go over the whole speech onsite, but it is good to at least run through all the visual aids or PowerPoint slides.

                    “Don’t worry about burning out or practicing too many
                    times; that’s much less likely than not practicing enough.”

I recommend using a stopwatch to time all practice runs. Like many people, I tend to speak faster in front of an audience than alone when practicing. I aim to finish a five-to-seven minute speech in six to seven minutes when I practice, because I want to always be within the time while allowing a little cushion for speaking faster. I also try to find three to five checkpoints in the speech, often at key transitions, and I make a mental note of the time it takes me to reach them. This will help me pace my speech so I can adjust if I get ahead or behind. It also gets me in the habit of looking at the clock at the same places in the speech every time. Checkpoints are particularly important for longer presentations.

For the extra important speech where you really want to shine, you will need to do some extra work. Practice a lot, seek out feedback from others, and if possible record and review video or at least audio of yourself several times. These self-critiques may seem painful because we tend to be our own worst critics, but they deliver the highest payoffs. Practice, practice, practice! Don’t worry about burning out or practicing too many times; that’s much less likely than not practicing enough. I gauge it’s enough when I don’t feel improvement after two consecutive good run-throughs. For important speeches, I recommend having contingency plans for potential problems, and practicing dealing with those problems.

No Time
Not long ago a new, young member of our club gave a manual speech that sounded like an extemporaneous talk. He started out fine, but within three or four sentences he was really struggling for words, and then he rattled on in a disjointed, unfocused manner for the next five minutes. After the meeting he told me he had come up with a topic and an opening but had been too busy to practice. It showed! He should have taken the time to go through his speech at least twice so he could have figured out where the speech was going and how to say what he wanted to say. Not only was it uncomfortable to listen to, but I doubt that anyone learned much that day – other than how important it is to practice.

Recently, another new Toastmaster who wasn’t as prepared as she should be asked me if she should speak or wait for a future meeting when she had more practice. My advice was, “Go ahead and speak, but don’t make a habit of it.” After the meeting, I discussed with her how more practice would have made that speech better.

The Toastmasters program intends to make you a better speaker. By coming unprepared, you might learn something about how to survive a speech, but it is much better to build good habits than reinforce bad habits by teaching yourself how to “get by.”

I would bet that most people who have earned their Competent Communicator award feel they didn’t adequately prepare for at least one of their first 10 speeches. I also would bet they learned a lesson from that experience.

It is important to point out, however, that members shouldn’t wait to be completely comfortable before “taking the plunge.” Otherwise, they may never get around to giving that next Toastmasters speech. We all have to balance time demands in life; we just need to plan and do the best we can to make the time needed for practice (proportionate to the speech’s importance).

Giving speeches is the best way to get better at it, and I truly believe effective practice (eventually) makes perfect. Through Toastmasters I have learned what it feels like to be very under-prepared, to be completely ready, and most everything in between. There’s no doubt which I prefer. 

Christopher J. Mortenson, ACB, ALB, is a Major in the US Air Force working at the National Security Space Institute. He recently joined the UCCS Toastmasters club 4829 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Reach him at