Speaking From the Overflow

A question I’m often asked about preparing a speech is, “How do I know when I am ready to speak?” One way of determining your readiness is when you realize that you have more information than you can ever cover in the time allotted. A powerful presentation is one that comes from the overflow.

If you say to yourself, “I hope I have enough material to take up the time I have to speak,” then you are not ready to speak. Granted, it is a challenge to find an abundance of information—especially if you have not delivered many speeches.

However, when you have to eliminate rather than stretch your material to cover the time, you are likely to have left only the most powerful examples, statistics, and testimony to prove your points, strengthening your content. Here are suggestions to make that happen.

First, incorporate a variety of sources in researching your subject. The more different sources you have, the more possibilities for materials to use in the presentation. For example, if you have an article from a trade journal, a quotation from a newspaper clipping, an interview with an authority, and a personal narrative on the topic, you probably have more material on a single point than you can use; you will have to choose only one or two pieces of evidence. This scenario usually ensures a rich and powerful piece of evidence for that part of the presentation.

Two, avoid “cramming” for a presentation. Start early in preparing the presentation. Much of the inspiration for a speech comes from merely mulling it over. Just thinking about the presentation while driving to and from work will give you a range of ideas that escape you when you are pressed for time and wait until a few hours before the speech to prepare. Audiences can sense when you have lived with a topic for a while—it shows in the depth of your thinking.

Third, talk to other people about your topic in the days and weeks before you present. Try out one of your ideas as dinner conversation with a small group of associates or family members. Just going over the idea  aloud will often give you information from your own thinking or feedback from the people with whom you share your ideas. This gives you a time to practice informally, and with each practice time you can add significant details.

Finally, make all of your reading and listening experiences a time of preparation. If you always have your mind open to materials connected to the areas you speak about, you will be more likely to pick up new and creative material for your next speech. For example, a recent article on the anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge reminded me of earlier material I had saved about the bridge that I had used in a speech several years ago. I began thinking how I might tie in the 75th anniversary of the opening of the bridge with an upcoming presentation.

Audiences know when you are speaking from the overflow. It shows in your confidence and in the depth of your material. Freshwater springs are often surrounded by plant and animal life because springs provide an environment for growth. A presentation which springs from the overflow of the speaker’s preparation provides the same environment of growth for listeners and is not soon forgotten.

Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. Steve won the Toastmasters International Speech Contest in 1970 and was chosen Outstanding Professor of the Year at NKU in 1984, among other awards and honors. Since retiring, he volunteers with nonprofits, spends time with family, travels, preaches occasionally, and enjoys reading and writing. Contact Steve at (859) 866-5693 or at steveboyd111@gmail.com.

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