Ten Tips for a Great Speech

In two weeks Jonathan Shainberg is going to be standing in front of a large crowd at Young Israel of Century City to administer the spiritual content of his bar mitzvah. When he is done wowing the crowd with his chanting of the weekly Torah portion, he will attempt to nourish their souls with a speech that will hopefully stay in their heads longer than the cholent at the kiddush will stay in their stomachs.

"I’m more nervous about the speech than I am about reading the Torah," Jonathan Shainberg told The Journal. "When you are reading the Torah you aren’t looking at people, but when you give the speech you have to look out at the whole crowd and seeing the faces makes me nervous."

Jonathan Shainberg’s trepidation about his bar mitzvah speech is not an unusual emotion. Any bar or bat mitzvah speech is a tricky thing. The speech needs to encapsulate the speaker’s twilight of youth and herald the dawn of his or her maturity — in other words, it needs to be adult enough to be interesting and full of content, while not losing sight of the fact that the person delivering it isn’t even in high school yet.

To minimize public speaking anxiety, The Jewish Journal put together a list of handy tips that will help keep your bar or bat mitzvah speech scintillating.

1. Figure Out What You’re Doing There

While the parents take care of the nuts and bolts of the bar mitzvah — calling the caterer, booking the hall and sending out the invitations — it falls on you, the adult-to-be, to not only administer the spiritual content of the day but to figure out why everyone is making such a fuss over you. To do that, you need to do some religious homework about the meaning of a bar/bat mitzvah and coming into Jewish adulthood. While this might not be completely germane to the speech itself, it will help get you into the right frame of mind to give an appropriate speech.

"The speech has to honor the youngster’s perception and understanding of what is happening to his or her own life," said Rabbi Zvi Dershowitz, Sinai Temple’s rabbi emeritus and resident bar/bat mitzvah speech assistant. "The first thing I do is identify that the concept of a bar mitzvah is not a one-day event — they are going to be a child of the commandments for the rest of their lives. I send the children home with texts to read and think about them, and then discuss their responses and give them other texts to enrich their thinking. I don’t even care if the speech isn’t very good, but I really care about the thought process that the youngster goes through."

2. Make It Your Own

There are two schools of thought when it comes to preparing bar/bat mitzvah speeches. Some people think speech writing and giving is beyond the purview of a 12- or 13-year-old — and therefore you need to have your speech written for you by someone with a little more experience, such as your rabbi, teacher or parents. Others think that for the sake of authenticity, you have to write your own speech.

Whether the child or an adult writes the speech, one thing is certain: If you have no input into it, the speech isn’t going to work.

You can have input in any number of ways. If someone else is writing the speech, then you can make sure that the person writing it discusses his or her ideas about content with you. You should tell him or her what you think of the ideas, and don’t be afraid of adding in your own stories or comments to the speech.

"The personalization of a speech is very important," said Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. "It can’t be canned, otherwise everyone would say the same thing. It needs to come from a kid’s own experience."

3. Don’t Forget About God

A bar mitzvah is more than just a party — it’s an initiation into the 613 commandments of the Torah. Any good speech should reflect the spiritual significance of the day.

The general rule for speeches is that the religious content derives from the weekly Torah portion or Haftarah that you read, but Jewish spiritual inspiration can be found in any number of places.

"We have them choose a section from Ethics of our Fathers and speak about what it means to them," Schulweis said. "That way it adds a Torah from the rabbinic tradition to the Torah that he reads — the Bible, and the Haftarah which is from the prophetic tradition. The Ethics of our Fathers is written in easy language and gives the kids something to think about and do for the rest of their lives."

4. Say Thank You

It is incumbent on the bar or bat mitzvah to be publicly grateful to all those who helped him or her get to this point. That includes parents, siblings, grandparents, teachers, friends, guests who have come in from out of town and anyone else who merits gratitude.

"This is a chance for the bar mitzvah boy to really ingratiate himself with his parents and to acknowledge all they have done for him," said Aaron Breitbart, bar mitzvah teacher to the youth of Young Israel of Century City.

5. Keep It Short

Before you get carried away with thanking everyone you ever came into contact with (see Rule No. 4), remember the Oscars and the orchestra that starts to play every time someone speaks for longer than the allotted 90 seconds. The music is there to tell the speaker to shut up and, if you speak for too long, then people in the audience will want to tell you the same thing. Remember that brevity is the soul of wit, which means, essentially, that when speeches are shorter, they are more enjoyable.

"For 10 minutes you drill and afterward you bore," Breitbart said. "You don’t want the speech to be too long."

6. Keep It Simple and

Age Appropriate

A bar or bat mitzvah speech is not a State of the Union. If you keep both the language and the content of your speech simple, audiences will have an easier time following it.

"The speech shouldn’t be one that throws in the kitchen sink," said Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City. "People can’t listen to 15 different ideas. The speech should develop one idea, and have a good beginning, middle and end."

You also don’t need to look up scores of 10-syllable words in the dictionary so you can impress the audience with your vocabulary. If you don’t use those words normally, then don’t use them in your speech.

"The only reason to ever use a big word is where a simple word doesn’t convey the thought," Breitbart said. "People know what the vocabulary of a 13-year-old is, and the language that you use needs to be the language that a 13-year-old child uses."

7. Make Them Laugh

Never underestimate the power of a good joke or story. A joke is likely to linger with the audience longer than the rest of the speech does.

"It is very important that there is humor in the speech," Breitbart said. "That is what everyone is looking for. Nobody wants to hear a sour bar mitzvah kid."

8. Practice Makes Perfect

You have to practice your speech. The more you practice your speech, the more comfortable you will be with the language and ideas in it, and the better your delivery will be. Practice your speech in front of your parents, siblings or friends, and then ask them for feedback, and listen to what they have to say. If people tell you that the speech is boring, don’t get offended, just find a way to make it more interesting by adding in another joke, ditching that third paragraph that didn’t make sense in the first place or modulating your voice so your speech isn’t delivered in a monotone.

"I have practiced my speech about 15 or 20 times," Jonathan Shainberg said. "Every practice it improves."

9. Don’t Be Nervous

Easier said than done of course, but if you are nervous, you’re not alone. Many inexperienced orators get the willies before speaking in public. A famous cure for public-speaking phobia is to imagine the audience in their underwear and proceed from there. Yet the mental visual of a room full of shul-goers in their knickers might not be an appropriate image for you to have in your mind before you are about to give a bar/bat mitzvah speech. Instead, breathe slowly and deeply, think of your whole body relaxing and tell yourself that you’ll be fine.

If none of that works, you might want to try another tactic.

"If you feel nervous, don’t look at people’s faces," said Mark Shainberg, Jonathan’s father. "Pretend to look at the faces, but look at the walls behind them."

10. Stand and Deliver

When it comes to giving your speech, stand up straight and tall, speak clearly and proudly and, when in doubt, slowly. Measured clarity trumps a rapid mumble every time.

If you have practiced the speech enough then the words won’t sound foreign to you, the speech will come naturally and you will be able to look the audience in the eye and let them know that you are truly a worthy member of the Jewish nation.