My second-biggest pet peeve, after global poverty, is when the person giving a speech is unprepared.
To be asked to speak in public is an honor. People have better things to do than listen to what you have to say; they could be reading a book, browsing pornography on the Internet, chatting with a friend or even browsing pornography on the Internet. So to take up other people's time with something you "came up with on the spot" is an insult. Whether you're a high school valedictorian giving a speech at your graduation ceremony, an office employee leading a presentation in the board room or the best man giving a wedding toast... HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY.
Let's say that your best friend in the whole world is getting married. This is the most important day of his life. Or at least it's in the top forty. Your friend is telling you that on Superbowl Sunday, you're his quarterback; he's relying on you. Should you bother to learn the playbook? To not be prepared with a well, thought-out toast, to not have something written down before you take the microphone, makes you the Mark Sanchez of weddings speeches. It also makes you a crappy friend.
This is not Twitter. This is not your podcast. This is an actual thing. This is actually happening. People are watching you. They are listening to you. And your plan is to "wing" it? #badidea #dontwingit #jennymccarthysnewhairstylethumbsdown
When you go to a Josh Groban concert, do you want him to perform improvisational, free-form musical numbers? Do you want him to write songs while he's standing on stage? Of course not. You expect ninety minutes of prepared, well-rehearsed, painfully stale songs sung with so much blandness that you pray only for a cyanide pill to drop from the ceiling so that you can end this ear-torturous misery. Although my wife seems to be enjoying the show.
Look, I don't know you, but you're probably not that funny. Yes, you make your friends laugh. But anyone can make their friends laugh. It's easy. You talk about that time you all got really drunk or you throw out the "remember-when-Todd-shit-his-pants story" and tadaa -- instant laughter. But that doesn't mean you're funny. And when you stand at the podium without any index cards and assume that a brilliantly hysterical string of words will magically rise from your larynx, the audience silence will be more deafening than the curtain call after a performance of Death of A Salesman starring Kourtney Kardashian and Scott Disick.
Be prepared. That's not just the motto of the Boy Scouts or Charlie Sheen when he gives his party guests a tour of the master bathroom; it's the first rule of giving a speech. Write down what you intend to say. Respect your audience.
It's not a coincidence that people who are funny and talented and good speakers, like Jerry Seinfeld or Chris Rock, bring it to the stage with prepared material. They don't wing it. It's the difference between "I'm proving to you that I'm funny" versus "I'm funny so whatever I'm about to say will probably be good." When you engage in public speaking unprepared, you're the latter... and it's usually more awkward than a Juan Pablo rose ceremony on the Bachelor.
But even a more serious presentation requires preparation. I've been to funerals where the speaker stammers and "umms" his way though the eulogy. It's painful. I mean, your loved one went out of their way to die, and you can't even be bothered to jot down a couple of sentences on your way to the cemetery?
Sometimes, when an actor wins an Oscar or an Emmy or a Tony or an Ashley or a LeBron or some other meaningless award, they stand behind the microphone stand without anything to say, other than a couple of minutes of rambling gibberish. And they always have the same excuse. "I didn't think I'd win." No -- Milla Jovovich didn't expect to win for Resident Evil: Afterlife. But you were nominated. You knew you had a chance. So write a f**king speech.
Write down what you plan to say. Be prepared. Keep it short. Know your audience. (IE If you're speaking at an assisted living home, save the Macklemore jokes for another time.) But mostly -- write down what you plan to say and be prepared.
Public speaking can be very intimidating to people. My advice is to picture everyone in their underwear -- not just during your speech but all the time. But as long as you have those index cards or that sheet of paper, you'll be okay. If your speech isn't great, nobody will remember, anyway. And at least you made an effort. But if you're unprepared and you meander and freeze up, well then you just became the topic of conversation during the ride home. "Who was that rambling idiot? That was embarrassing. Hey -- let's stop at Wendy's for a Frosty."
You've been asked to say a few words. Think about that. This is a big deal. Someone thinks you're interesting enough or knowledgeable enough to be heard. Now seize the moment and take advantage of this opportunity. You can go back to playing Angry Birds and eating your Totino's pizza rolls in a few minutes. But for now, give it your all. Make your words count. There is nothing honorable about "getting up there and just speaking from the heart." That's just another way of saying "lazy bastard who couldn't be bothered to prepare anything." Your heart is a storage tank that holds your mind's deep thoughts and complex emotions; the best way to articulate how you feel is by outlining and organizing your words in advance. When football announcers say that a player "has heart," they don't mean he doesn't practice.
The story goes that Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address, probably the greatest "best man" wedding toast in the history of our nation, in under two hours. I don't think it's too much to ask that you spend a few hours writing your address to the Rotary Club.
There is a myth that Martin Luther King improvised his I Have A Dream speech. In reality, the words were written down. King did go off-paper for a few minutes. But you are not Martin Luther King. So don't do that.