The following article was written by me and appeared in the most recent edition of Vaahan Magazine – it provides some useful advice on writing a structured and effective speech:
Almost thirty years ago, I experienced one of those moments that change our lives forever.
I was in a fairly junior sales job and, if I am honest, not making a great fist of it. I was simply too young and too new to London to have the confidence to close deals. However I was great at sales presentations which I got to practice during training but never got to deliver because I lacked the seniority that was so important in 80s business.
Being unable to use a skill was so frustrating!
There I was, sitting in the London traffic, when a politician came on the radio, speaking to a big conference. I immediately thought I could do that!
This light bulb moment launched a 26 year political career which saw me using my speaking skill to address all kinds of audiences all over the capital as well as in other countries. I also took time to study law and was Called to The Bar in 1997, winning a debating award at the prestigious Middle Temple.
I have written and performed hundreds of speeches and coached aspiring politicians and managers through this unfamiliar and often daunting process.
Now I use my experience to help people facing the ordeal of public speaking. For many successful individuals only rarely speak in public and view the prospect with worry and even panic. A great speech can really enhance your professional reputation and boost your career in a very short space of time, so it is worth doing and it is worth taking the time to get it right.
It takes a lot of planning to look this spontaneous!
We tend to fear the unknown, so detailed preparation really pays off.
Most important is to know your audience. A group of professionals will expect you to be well informed and authoritative. A large audience at a festival will just expect to be entertained but gaining and holding their attention could be tough. Friends and family at a wedding will want you to be your best for them and in some ways that makes the pressure even greater.
Familiarity with the venue is also vital. I always tell speakers to arrive early and check out the room. Are there any distracting echoes? Does the microphone work effectively? Can you actually use that Powerpoint presentation that you spent so long crafting?
And of course you must understand the purpose of your speech. Why did they invite you and what are you hoping to achieve? With this knowledge you can craft a really well aimed message that holds their interest and leaves them wanting more.
Every speech must have a structure to ensure the message is delivered and to cut out pointless waffle. Good speeches have a clearly defined opening, middle and ending – like a successful game of chess.
For a very short speech you might just memorise opening and closing lines and aim to make no more than two points clearly and persuasively. The start of your speech is the most difficult moment, a bit like the initial plunge into a cold swimming pool, so a memorised line can help you through this initial barrier. A closing line is also important as you want to avoid becoming stranded on stage, groping frantically for the words that will end the ordeal.
For a longer speech, you need to grab the attention of the audience and get them on side. This rapport building is very important at the start as without it the vital content may go unheard.
In some cases rapport is built by stating a joint purpose or objective that everyone can agree on. In others a little bit of background which shows you share the audience’s views and life experiences may be appropriate – people generally warm to speakers who are like themselves.
Humour is also a good ice breaker – but only if you are actually funny! Previous UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown would start speeches with jokes which came across as very wooden. This was a shame, as his later material was always well informed and passionate when he talked about skills and training. Bad jokes can even cause offence so it is wise to be cautious.
This is where you develop your arguments and make your case.
Statistics can be used to lend authority to arguments but they should not be over used. In my view there should be no more than three statistical references in a good speech so they need to be chosen carefully. They are a tool to be used sparingly, not a magic wand to wave around.
Examples from real life can flesh out an argument and make it much more memorable. This storytelling element helps speakers to stand out from the crowd particularly when they refer to their own experiences, which will be unique to them.
All speeches require the audience to do something. Politicians want their votes, salespeople want their business, interviewees want the job. So, the speech should conclude with a call to action. In the UK actually asking for things can look a bit un British, but my success rate as a politician was hugely increased once I started asking people to campaign and to vote.
The call to action needs to be delivered in an upbeat tone, closing the speech on a high note and leaving them wanting more.
A prominent businessman was asked to speak at a civic lunch in London. Wisely, he asked how long he should speak for and was told “not long, only four to five minutes.” He prepared carefully and stuck to time, sitting down after a speech lasting Forty Five Minutes, much to the audience’s relief.
That was a case of poor communication, but I have an iron rule that my speeches should last no longer than thirty minutes. Anything more is wasted as attention wanders and so do some of the listeners. Some organisers expect longer, so it is a good idea to break a speech up or to conclude with questions which can go on for some time and should maintain interest.
Delivering a speech can be a scary business but it is also a great opportunity to showcase your skills. There is no need to panic if you take time to plan and follow a basic structure.
Whatever your speechwriting needs I can work with you to plan your presentation and to Be Your Best for this important event – contact me for more details.