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
I have written and performed hundreds of speeches and
coached aspiring politicians and managers through this unfamiliar and often
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
It takes a lot of
planning to look this spontaneous!
We tend to fear the unknown, so detailed preparation really
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
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
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
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.