Friday, March 15, 2013

6 famous extemporaneous speeches by women from The Eloquent Woman Index

Most people have at least a little case of the nerves when it comes to public speaking, so it can seem doubly impressive to watch a person speaking without notes, off-the-cuff, extemporaneously.

You may think of this as the sort of speaking you need to do only in a pinch, when technical difficulties arise or you're called upon to talk without a warning. But a look back at the speeches in The Eloquent Woman Index suggests that there may be some very good reasons for speaking without a net. Click on the speaker's name to reach the "Famous Speech Friday" post that describes the speech and what you can learn from it; where available, these posts include transcripts or texts, video or audio.

Do it to connect with your audience 

Without notes to glance at, speakers can keep strong eye contact with their audience. Studies show that audiences appreciate this, and feel more engaged with a speaker and her topic when it happens. Check out how then-Yahoo! CEO Carol Bartz used this to great effect when she tossed out her prepared speech at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women and Computing.

Extemporaneous speaking can also serve as a signal that the barriers between an audience and speaker have been lowered, as in this eloquent commencement address by teacher and author Margaret Edson. Lowering these barriers is a difficult feat, especially for a speaker up in front and sometimes placed high above a large group of listeners.

No notes can sometimes mean no script for the speech, which is a good thing for speakers who rely on call-and-response to build rapport with their audiences. Self-proclaimed "hellraiser" and union activist Mother Jones shows how to both lead and follow an audience in her speech before striking West Virginia miners.

Do it to tell your personal stories

Plenty of good speakers draw on personal experiences when they talk, but those experiences can sometimes sound flat when they're crafted and planned out in the same way that a less intimate speech might be. If it's your story, you might do better to tell it off the cuff, so that it comes out in your own unvarnished words. Actor Viola Davis did this at ELLE magazine's 2011 Women in Hollywood awards, as she talked about the childhood games that led to her career. Another plus for her: Davis said that speaking with notes actually makes her more nervous.

Kayla Kearney, who at 17 years old came out as a lesbian at a high school assembly, is another speaker who chose to tell a personal story without notes. She was in control and able to speak so powerfully in part because she chose a topic that she had considered over and over, and didn't need notes to get in the way of the telling.

Do it because you can

The idea of speaking without a speech might have scared First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy when she gave her historic televised tour of the White House on Valentine's Day 1962. And the producers did notice her nerves and elevated voice on camera. But they were also astonished by her vast recall of details about each room on the tour. Her preparation for the talk came from the hundreds of hours she had spent guiding the White House renovation, and it was that intensive knowledge that showed up on camera as well.

Do these famous speeches inspire you to be a little more extemporaneous in your next talk? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

(Freelance writer Becky Ham contributed this post.)

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