Stand Up, Speak Up – With These Four Simple Rules


All of us have to give speeches: whether it’s business or family, sooner or later we have to stand up and pull a page of notes from our inside pocket. And very few of us relish the occasion: as the old joke goes, the number one fear in America is public speaking; the number two fear is death. So if you’re at a funeral you’d rather be in the coffin than delivering the eulogy…

We’ve all been on the receiving end as well. Goodness knows how many speeches and presentations I’ve listened to in my life – but remarkably few of them have been memorable. In fact far too many have been downright disappointing. Why is that? Making a speech can be crucially important in business – and yet it’s a skill that’s almost totally ignored. ‘Oh hell, I’ve got to make a speech on Friday. I’ll make a few notes on Thursday night’ seems to be the prevalent attitude – and all too often it shows.

So when I was introduced to a professional speechwriter recently I was all ears. We talked for maybe half an hour: some of her suggestions for giving an effective speech might surprise you…

Write it out. She was absolutely adamant on this one – and very critical of the man who stands up to speak, searches every pocket in his suit and finally produces a battered piece of paper. Inevitably what follows isn’t fun for anyone…

“The back of an envelope simply won’t do,” she said. “You’ve been invited to give a speech. You have an obligation to deliver. Not to wing it.” So she absolutely advocates writing the speech out in full. And then…

Practise. “The best speaker I know has a ratio of 60:1,” she said. “That is, he’ll spend 60 minutes practising for every minute that he’s speaking.” I protested that this was incredibly time-consuming. If you’re running a business, finding 20 hours to practise a 20 minute speech is close to impossible. “Absolutely,” she said. “That’s why men – and sorry, Ed, it’s always men – convince themselves they can wing it. But they can’t.” The example she quoted was Barack Obama. Outstanding when he’s practised and when he’s on the autocue: significantly below average when it’s an impromptu speech.

By this time I was feeling slightly under attack. I’ll freely admit that I’ve never gone anywhere near a ratio of even 20:1. But there was another onslaught to come…

“Learn It.” Her view was that any competent person can learn any speech of twenty minutes or less. (Apparently we speak at around 120 words a minute – so that would be a speech of 2,400 words. Three of these blog posts…) “Yes, you can,” she insisted. “You only think you can’t do it because you haven’t tried.” Again, she was absolutely certain of her point. “If you’ve learned a speech your confidence goes up 1000%. That confidence is reflected in your voice and in your body language. The audience sense it. You make eye contact. You have more energy. Why do you think politicians are so desperate to seem to give a speech without notes?”

By this time her final point didn’t seem at all surprising. “A speech is a conversation. Sure, it’s a conversation where one person does nearly all the talking. But it’s still a two way process.” What she meant was that your audience will smile, nod, laugh and applaud. Even though they’re not speaking, they’ll still be interacting with you. And the word conversation is important in another sense as well. “You need to speak in a conversational style. A speech – especially when it’s personal – isn’t an essay and it isn’t a lecture. And even if it is a lecture, it still needs lighter moments. So when you’re writing you need to cue applause and laughter – and above all you need to use short, simple words.”

I’ll freely admit that when I was speaking to her I was sceptical. Thinking about the conversation later – and having been on the receiving end of another man stumbling through his notes – I can see the sense of what she said. And I can see the ‘obligation to deliver’ as well. As she so succinctly put it, “You want 100% of your audience’s attention. They want 100% of your ability.”

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7 comments

  1. Fred · June 18, 2015

    Best blog to date Ed. a great orator and communicator can go far!

  2. simonjhudson · June 19, 2015

    I like think that I do a better than par job of speeches and presentations, so with that piece of ego positioning,, my reflections on this:
    1. Darn right. While the ability to wing it is also a valuable skill there is no excuse for not preparing for a talk that you know about. However that should never, ever mean that you deliver it like a script in a play; for a talk to have life it needs improvisation, passion, spontaneity. The preparation is so that you can do that and still stay on track and on message.
    2. I have never, ever had time to do the 60:1 in terms of standing before a mirror rehearsing. But time spent thinking it through in the car, while walking, watching TV or talking to your wife and kids also counts. Time preparing it counts. I still like to do a couple of runs through, to ensure it flows well, hits the time slot and has the right weight – plus to get feedback. But that doesn’t mean it is hours out of your day, it’s hours within your days.
    3. Since it isn’t a script, learning it means learning the key points, the structure and flow and any key phrases or sound bites you plan to use. If you have trouble remembering a particular paragraph that you do want absolutely word perfect then I find it is ok to read that from a card (though these days I use my phone) as long as you advise that is what you are going to do because it’s important that you get it right – that becomes part of the theatre of the delivery.
    4. It’s absolutely critical to engage with the audience. Once you have more than a few dozen audience members it is hard to keep track of everyone. I usually pick a few specific people that I can see, maybe some people I recognise, or who smile when I look at them or (but this might just be me) the prettiest women in the audience. Then I talk straight to them, making eye contact and responding to their body language. The rest of the audience is drawn into the conversation.

    Finally, I never attempt to make jokes – I just don’t have the timing for scripted humour. However I will always attempt to be witty. Others can tell jokes, but I can do embedded hmour. Play to your strengths.

    • edreidyork · June 19, 2015

      I have the advantage, Simon, of having seen you in action! And I can vouch for your ability to engage the audience, even if I don’t fall into the category of “prettiest”! Good points about passion and spontaneity – and I guess the prep element on that comes down to the individual. Thanks as ever for your comments

  3. douglasadamsonauthor · June 19, 2015

    Reblogged this on Douglas Adamson and commented:
    Ed your friend is correct. Winston Churchill’s speeches were painstakingly honed to perfection and not so spontaneous that he would have you believe. My mantra is rehearse, rehearse, rehearse and rehearse again.

    • edreidyork · June 19, 2015

      Thanks, Dougie – I recently finished a great book on Churchill by Boris Johnson, and know exactly what you mean – his spontaneity was brilliantly prepared

  4. Jo Clarkson · June 19, 2015

    Wow Ed – very clear direction from someone who knows what they are talking about – and I could feel myself squirming as I was reading it!!! I shall improve – you will notice the difference I promise!!

    • edreidyork · June 19, 2015

      I’m not sure I set out to make anyone squirm, Jo – least of all you! Anyway, shall look forward to next time you’re on your feet! (And had better ensure I reciprocate!)

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