By: Susan Dugdale | Updated: 12-16-2023
There are 4 modes (methods) or ways to deliver a speech: to read it from a manuscript word by word, to completely memorize it, as an impromptu, and to give it extemporaneously.
How do you know which mode will be most effective?
The answer depends on how much time you have available, the type of speech you’re giving and, your audience.
Let’s briefly outline each method and their advantages and disadvantages.
An overview of the 4 modes of speech delivery, the pros (advantages) and cons (disadvantages) of each, plus links to examples and further resources.
One of the most common ways to deliver a speech is to use a manuscript: a word by word document of everything you plan to say from beginning to end. This ensures, when you read it out loud, what you say is exactly what you intend, without deviation.
As with any type of speech, the best way to start is not with the words but with considering your topic, your audience, how much time you have to speak and the purpose of your speech.
Once you have those clear, then you are ready to begin planning a speech outline: an overview of all the material you want to cover.
When the outline is completed you’ll use that to write your manuscript.
Click the link for more about the process of preparing a speech outline, with examples. (The page also has a free printable blank speech outline for you to download and use)
And for more about writing a speech, in particular writing oral language, words to be spoken aloud, please see how to write a speech. You’ll find a useful guide covering the principal characteristics of spoken speech. (It is very different from writing an essay!)
Newsreaders, TV personalities, politicians, business leaders and the President! Anybody whose speech is going to be closely scrutinized will use either a manuscript or its electronic equivalent, a teleprompter. These are speeches where the content is significant, perhaps life changing, where facts and figures must be 100% accurate, and where the tone of the language used is important.
What distinguishes a good delivery of a manuscript speech from a poor one, is practice. Some of the greatest public speakers in the world ‘read’ their speeches with so much skill they sound as if they are making up what they’re saying on the spot. The speech comes across as being completely spontaneous and is delivered flawlessly.
A famous example is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Sir Winston Churchill. Throughout World War Two (1939-1945) his extraordinary speeches inspired the people he led to persevere in their fight to keep the Nazis out of England in spite of the odds being stacked against them.
To find out more read Winston Churchill's Way With Words - an excellent NPR article, with audio, on how he crafted his speeches.
And another more recent example is America’s ex-President Barack Obama.
American Rhetoric has audio and text (pdf) links to his speeches spanning 2002 - 2014. Four are included in a list of 49 of the most important speeches in 21st century America. These are:
Print your speech out single sided. Make sure each page is numbered clearly. Use an easily read font like Arial, black ink, and size the font and space the lines so that the text may be read at a glance.
Use a lectern adjusted for your height to put your manuscript on. As you finish reading each page turn it over face down and move it to your left. That will help stop you from getting muddled.
Aim for at least one read through aloud before you deliver it.
The more you can practice the better your delivery will be.
Reading aloud well is a skill. Some people are very good at it, and some are ghastly, largely because they’ve had no practice. (And sadly, many who regularly read their speech scripts don’t realize how bad they are to listen to because nobody has told them. Their presentations have been endured, rather than enjoyed for years!)
If you have to regularly read your speeches here’s how to read a speech effectively: 4 good ways to improve how you read aloud. It will help a great deal!
The major advantage of using a script is that it ensures the speaker will deliver the right message, the one that’s been prepared, without errors. This is particularly important when presenting complex subject matter.
Another is that when there's not enough time to rehearse or prepare thoroughly, reading may be the only real option available. Without the safety of a script you may forget large chunks of information, or misremember important material. The script keeps you on track.
A third reason could be that the mere presence of the script is reassuring for nervous or anxious speakers. Even if they do not actually need it, because they’ve prepared well, the script is calming. If they suddenly blank out, they’ll be alright, as they have the script to refer to.
And a fourth is that you can easily back track, return to a point you made several pages earlier, if you need to.
The main disadvantages of using a manuscript are:
A memorized speech is one delivered completely from memory. That means: no notes at all. There is just you: the speaker, the speech you recall, word for word, and your audience.
There are three likely reasons.
A personal speech, for example one sharing childhood stories, a very carefully scripted humorous speech where you absolutely must get the words in the right order for them to work, or an inspirational one prepared especially to move and motivate a particular audience. All of these can be more effective delivered without notes.
There are also declamation speeches. These are in a special category of their own. They are memorized recitations of known speeches: a task set by teachers to have their pupil's fully experience the power of carefully crafted, well delivered oratorical language.
If you decide to memorize your entire speech, the very first thing you’ll need is lots of time to practice. This is critical. Do not be tempted to minimize how much is required.
To safely commit it to memory you have to go over and over your speech until you can easily say it out loud without hesitation, deviation or repetition. This can take weeks of regular daily practice, particularly if you’ve not done it before. If you haven’t got that time available to you, opt for an extemporized delivery. (See the notes on extemporaneous speeches below.)
Having made the decision to memorize, the next thing you need to do is carefully review your speech outline.
These are questions you’ll want to consider:
(Click the link for more about preparing a useful speech outline. You’ll find step by step guidelines, examples, and a free printable blank outline template to use.)
Once you are satisfied with your outline, it’s time to begin the process of committing it to memory.
This starts with saying your speech out loud multiple times while using your outline. As you do you’ll be listening for bits you need to change in some way. Perhaps the words you’re using aren’t quite right for your audience. Maybe it doesn’t flow as well as you thought it did and you’ll want to swap pieces around. Or it’s too long and needs pruning.
It’s a repetitive process: make a change. Try it out. If it’s good, keep it and move on to the next section. Repeat until you’ve worked through the entire speech.
An additional tip is for every significant change you make, make a new document, (eg. myspeech v1, myspeech v2, myspeech v3…) or at least track the changes. That way if you decide you want to revert to an earlier version you can. I’ve got at least 10 versions of some of the speeches I’ve written!
The next step is to begin working without the outline.
The method I use is the same one I use as an actor to learn play lines.
I call it ‘see, walk and talk’. It's a 3 part approach. Each is essential.
The seeing part is visualization: seeing the words on the page. Seeing the order they come in, and anything else that distinguishes them from the rest. Is it a heading? Is it a number? Is it highlighted?
The second part is walking. Walking helps a great deal and is an ancient technique for memorizing now backed by science.*
If it’s fine, I walk outside and as I walk, I talk (the third part), repeating out loud the section I'm trying to recall over and over until I get it right.
If the weather is bad, then I walk inside, around and around a room, or on a treadmill which works just as well.
* Schmidt-Kassow M, Zink N, Mock J, et al. Treadmill walking during vocabulary encoding improves verbal long-term memory. Behav Brain Funct. 2014;10:24. Published 2014 Jul 12. doi:10.1186/1744-9081-10-24)
Start with the body of your speech, the main points. Your goal is to remember each one, in their correct order.
There are three steps in this process.
Repeat until you can run through the entire sequence of main points, and the transitions between them, without hesitation.
The next step is to add the fine points - the subpoints (additional material) and examples to your main points.
Go back to the first main point. Take a mental snapshot of the subpoints and examples. Note carefully the order they come in, and any specialist vocabulary or phrase you wanted to use.
Now walk and talk. Repeat the sequence until you have it as you want it. Then go back to the beginning and repeat the first main point, its supporting material and then the subsequent main points.
Your next part to memorize is the second main point's supporting material. Once you have that down, you go back to the beginning to run the first main point, its sub points, then the second point and its sub points. Then you are ready to do the third main point in exactly the same way.
Once you have completed memorizing the body of your speech, add the conclusion and the beginning.
The pattern is simple. You add a piece, then go back and repeat it all through from the beginning. Each repetition etches it more deeply into your memory.
Please note: you are not working on delivery as you say it out loud. This is purely routine repetition. There is no need for pausing, emphasis, or changes in volume and pace. Think of it as a vanilla performance - plain. At this stage the bulk of your energy needs to go into remembering, not expression.
Delivery is how you say your speech, not what you say.
Once you have the content (what you are saying) reliably remembered, you are free to work on your vocal delivery: how you are going to say it.
Which parts need to be said more slowly? Which parts need to be highlighted through strategic pausing? What can be spoken quickly? Are there bits that need to be treated as asides? Are there ‘voices’ to take on? Perhaps an angry voice? Or a wheedling, whining voice?
How you say your speech directly affects how your audience receives it. If you deliver it like a monotone robot - one speed, one tone, one pitch, one volume, people’s ears will switch off even if the content is interesting to them. Delivery can make all the difference between listening and not listening.
To be effective, your delivery needs to fit both the content and the audience’s needs.
As with memorizing the content, getting the delivery how you want it requires experimentation and then repetition to ensure you’ve got it safely embedded.
Working with a recorder is useful to actually hear what your voice is doing, rather what you think it’s doing. There’s often a very big difference. You’ll hear if you’re going too quickly, pausing too long, not pausing long enough, mispronouncing words, gabbling, or using the same inflection pattern over and over again.
Find out more about the vocal aspects of speech delivery.
It’s also useful to either work in front of a mirror or video yourself. That will show you where you need to modify your body language. Do you stand straight? Do you gesture appropriately?
Rinse, and repeat until you feel happy with what you’re doing. And then practice in front of a select test audience, whom you know will give you honest useful feedback. Incorporate what you want from the suggestions you’re given and practice again. And now you should be ready to deliver your speech!
A memorized speech is generally more engaging. If delivered well it creates the illusion of having a conversation with your audience because you are speaking directly to them and you are able to make eye contact freely, as well as move how, and where you want. This creates a more intimate and personal connection.
There are three major disadvantages to memorizing a speech. The biggest is the risk of forgetting something, especially with a longer speech. This can lead to panic which leads to scrabbling around trying to pick up the threads to start again. That can rapidly become a downward spiral which compromises the whole presentation.
Secondly, using a memorized speech can constrain or limit the ideas you express because everything is prepared in advance. It leaves little room for spontaneity: content adjustments and additions made in response to a particular audience’s needs.
And thirdly, a memorized speech can be incredibly boring if the speaker has not worked on delivery. It has a canned quality, lacking immediacy and vitality. It sounds like a switch got flicked on and out it comes: blah, blah, blah … irrespective of the audience.
An impromptu speech is, as its name suggests, a speech made without prior planning, organization or rehearsal.
Although it may be based on a brief outline or written prompt, the speaker will often have little or no opportunity for detailed or extensive preparation.
While making an impromptu speech involves little immediate preparation it require significant amounts of prior practice to give one well.
An effective impromptu speech is structured, (beginning, middle, end), and meets the needs of those listening to it. To give a good one requires versatility and flexibility: the ability to adapt and respond easily and appropriately to the unexpected.
The speaker needs to understand how to quickly choose the best format, how to decide on the main points to cover, how to order them, and how to open and close the speech.
And lastly, impromptu speaking requires confidence, and trust in oneself.
There are many social or work settings where making an impromptu speech is expected, and if done well, very much appreciated.
At a family get together the person who is asked to say a few words to welcome everyone, or make the toast is giving an impromptu speech. At a meeting to discuss current work issues, a sales manager may be asked to outline areas of challenge without prior warning. The response they give is an impromptu speech.
The ability to summon up succinct, structured remarks is highly valued in all areas of life.
The essential preparation for impromptu speaking begins out of the spotlight, long before being asked to speak.
For comprehensive step by step guidelines covering how to gain the necessary skills please see: strategies and templates to succeed at impromptu speaking.
You’ll find tips to get you started, 7 different structural templates to use, suggestions for keeping any nervousness under control, and links to 100s of impromptu speaking topics to use for practice.
The advantages definitely outweigh any disadvantages.
Although some people have a natural gift for being able to talk freely and spontaneously, it can be learned. It’s a skill, like riding a bike. (But better!) When you’re beginning you fall off a few times, and graze your knees. If you get back on and keep pedaling eventually you stay upright.
Get better at impromptu speaking and you’ll find it will open many doors, leading to a richer and fuller life.
Don’t settle for silence when you can learn to speak up for yourself, and others.
If you're reluctant to attempt it and put yourself out there, please read this article: Speaking in business may be your most important skill.
In some contexts and on some subjects it would be unwise to attempt delivering an impromptu speech.
For instance, when asked for an evaluation of business risks associated with Covid-19, or to comment on possible correlations between socio-economic status and educational achievement in the USA, speaking without consulting a broad cross-section of informed specialists would be ill-advised.
Each situation needs careful consideration. Are you able to talk knowledgeably on the topic you’ve been given? Are you entitled to talk about it?
If you can not speak on the subject being asked of you, say so politely. You can offer to come back with a full response at a later date. Or you can hand the question on to someone who can answer it. Knowing your limits is very useful for maintaining credibility!
Another possible downside is succumbing to fear. It could be fear of finding yourself with nothing to say, of drying up under pressure, or of muddling material in some way. The only really useful antidote to nervousness/fear is practice. Lots, and lots of it. It does get better!
An extemporaneous speech is one where the speaker combines the use of notes or cue cards with improvisation. It’s a mix of carefully scripted and sequenced material and impromptu speaking.
An extemporaneous delivery is naturally flowing and conversational. The points to be made will have been carefully outlined. They will be in the correct order, along with their supporting ideas and examples but the exact wording is made up as you go along.
If you give the same speech to different audiences, the words you use may change because every audience responds differently. The result is a speech that is fresh each time it is delivered, because while you are speaking, you are in the moment, speaking off-the-cuff and from the heart. The text is neither memorized, or being read word for word.
Like the first three modes of delivery, this too needs practice, in order to become good at it.
You’ll need to practice:
For more information here's a very useful 'how to' article from The Dept. of Communication at the University of Pittsburgh on oral discourse and extemporaneous delivery.
An extemporaneous speech is more spontaneous and therefore natural compared to either a manuscript or memorized speech. The speaker is free to tailor the presentation to the audience, rather than sticking to a set speech. That could include responding to any questions or objections he receives.
There are three main drawbacks to extemporaneous speaking.
The first is becoming stranded; tongue tied and silent because you don't know how to get from one point on your outline or cue cards to the next. When that happens, the delivery becomes stilted, a stop-start presentation, which in turn can make the speaker feel anxious, which makes recovering the flow more difficult.
A second drawback is misreading the audience, and delivering the speech using either language, (word choices), or humor they find hard to understand or accept.
As an example, a speech littered with ‘corporate speak’ is not going to win me over. I don’t want to hear about ‘core competencies’, ‘going forwards’ , ‘ducks in a row’ or anything ‘scalable’ at all!
And a third is exceeding the time allowance you’d been given. Because you are fleshing it out from your cue cards or outline as you go along it is easy to lose track of time. The cumulative effect of an additional example or two and further comments, quickly soaks it up, leaving you scrambling to finish properly.
If you are a first time presenter, probably the safer option is to learn how to read a manuscript speech well and gradually build the skills required to give an extemporaneous speech.