Speechmaking for the terrified (and the slightly jittery)

| September 29, 2015

Speechmaking for the terrified (and the slightly jittery)

Which way to the top floor?

Some people would sooner fling themselves from a cliff than make a speech. And they’d tie a rock to their ankles if they’re told to ‘make it entertaining and witty’.  That’s even though their audience is usually composed of supportive people keen to learn and applaud.  But that’s not how some speakers see it. In their minds, everyone’s just waiting to snigger at a badly timed punch-line or ill-judged anecdotes.  Even worse is the spectre of dead silence. Crueller still are embarrassed, echoey titters.

So if you’re ever in that situation, instead of tapping a nearby cliff top or high building into your Sat Nav, you may like to consider borrowing some pretty fail-safe professional techniques.  I’ve collected these tips over decades of speech writing that include corporate presentations for such leading UK TV personalities as Melvyn Bragg, Ian Hislop, Jeremy Paxman, Graham Norton, Michael Buerk, Clive Anderson, Jonathan Ross and Richard Wilson. I’ve also written scores of speeches for every kind of social occasion from christenings to funerals, bar mitzvahs to weddings.

On the shoulders of many non-professional speakers at these occasions sits an imaginary soundtrack pointing out how much has gone into the occasion – the enormous cost of a convention, product launch or media conference and how much they’re going to wreck the entire investment with a lame or toe-curling inappropriate speech.

You’re joking

So how can one avoid such a nightmare? Well, let’s start with what not to do. Don’t tell jokes unless you have a natural talent for them and can time your punch-lines perfectly.

If you still feel the need, then keep them short and always have a follow-up line in case you have to cover the ensuing silence.  Always ensure they are relevant or obviously partisan like these lines from CEO of an expanding electronics firm who was talking up his products to his sales force by belittling his competitors’: “How many of our rival’s sales people does it take to change a light bulb? The answer’s ‘None, they just stood there and waited for the world to go around them.’  Followed by, ‘Offer them a penny for their thoughts and you’d get change.’  And the final punch, ‘The wheel’s spinning but the hamster’s dead.”

Active audience participation

Involving the audience is important and helps create a more animated atmosphere. For example, ask them a question that has an obvious and motivating ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer. There are more elaborate techniques of course.  I saw a feminist after-dinner speaker make quite an impact when she asked every woman in the room to place her hand on the table.  She then asked the nearest males to place their hands on top of the women’s hands.  Then she said… ”and that’s the last time, you men will ever have the upper hand over us women.”


One of the most asked questions is how long should I speak for?  Well, my advice is where possible just say what’s important for you to express – and don’t gratuitously pad it out.  One of history’s greatest and most remembered speeches was Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  It was two minutes long.

Nerves and building self-confidence

Now to the topic of nerves and building self-confidence. Non-professionals invariably need help in this area and the advice is straightforward. For example, if you’re really worried about a forthcoming presentation, why not change the description of how you’re feeling from ‘nervous’ to ‘excited’?  Here are some other powerful tips to help ensure your presentation is confident, powerful and memorable (for the right reasons):

  • While rehearsing, underline key words in every sentence for emphasis. As you’re waiting to be announced, repeat in your mind the first couple of sentences of your speech.  It is not only good practice for a strong start but it also blocks negative thoughts.
  • Just before you’re announced, take three deep relaxing breaths.
  • Wait a couple of seconds after you’ve been announced before standing. It’s a good way to build your self-confidence.
  • Before starting, pause for a second again. It helps establish who’s in charge. Then smile at someone nearby.  (Smiling on such occasions is never misinterpreted and is universally therapeutic)
  • If you are reading from a script, rehearse it so you know where the content is on the page. Then you won’t be scared of looking around and losing your place.
  • Don’t allow your voice to drop at the end of sentences.
  • Be sure you scan whole room, don’t leave anyone out and don’t get fixated on one smiley person.
  • Vary your speed of delivery and pitch of voice as appropriate between topics.
  • Pause between topics– silence adds impact, but not for too long or it may seem pompous.
  • Keep you energy up.  If you don’t, nor will the audience.  Being energetic is contagious.
  • Smile when you make your speech or presentation. . .
  •  . . .and guess what? They’ll all be smiling too and that’s a much more attractive prospect than from the top of a cliff.