On Delivering a Speech
Having recently made a speech during which a fair number of people walked out, I decided it was high time to write down some guidelines for myself. Of course I will have to stick to them then! A speech is not an essay, or a song, a play or a dirge. It is the public telling of a story that attempts to convince an audience of your point of view. Like all stories, it must have a beginning, a middle and an end. The audience is the thing that must decide on the tone, length and content of the speech. Most audiences are speaker proofed to some degree. They have been bored so many times that they generally have low expectation. If the room is dark and there isn’t air conditioning the worst result for them may not be falling asleep – provided of course they don’t snore, that might be embarrassing. So what kind of an audience is being addressed. They are the customer for which the message has to be packaged. A highly specialised audience who have travelled a long way at their own expense will, an audience who is present because they are compelled or are killing time, would be at the other end of the spectrum. So let us assume our mythical audience is some mixture of these two. To one degree or another they need to be entertained. So the speaker is telling a story which has to be, to some degree entertaining. Reading a speech is hardly ever entertaining. Engaging in conversation with the audience and taking feedback from them can be entertaining. You certainly have more of a chance of getting the message across if you try and engage with them. The worst of all worlds is where the speaker shows slides on a powerpoint and constantly turns his/her back to the audience to read what is written on the screen behind. I like to single out someone in the audience and to address my remarks to him or her. Eye contact is essential. Of course all the audience has to feel involved and so the speakers’ conversations has to be with different people, people who are located at various places. This can be difficult to do because the audience can be unevenly lit. It is much easier to see someone who has a light shining on them. I was once at a speech at the end of a dinner when an architect got up to describe a whole series of beautiful buildings. The audience was merry, it being a Friday night in England. The speaker never established mastery. There was an audible din to begin with and it got gradually louder. His response was interesting. He gradually turned away from the audience and finished up for the final ten minutes speaking to the screen, his back to us. We, of course responded to the situation. Someone at my table was asleep and snoring. Others at the table amused themselves by seeing who could land pieces of bread in his open mouth. Loud haloos, much laughter and 100% disinterest in what the speaker was saying. Any general audience cannot concentrate beyond twenty minutes. Therefore they will remember one or two things that were said. O.K. Well if that is the case why tell them forty things. They will always remember one thing so if you tell them forty then you leave it up to them which one. It may not be the important one. This reasoning alone tells us about preparing the speech. What is the one message you want them to remember. Weave the story around this. We mentioned entertain. Entertainment need not necessarily be humorous. Indeed the most difficult art to master is that of the stand up comic. People go to the theatre to be entertained by tragedy, melodrama, farce, burlesque etc as well as comedy. Almost all audiences are, albeit reluctantly entertained by authenticity, a sincerely held and enthusiastically explained view. This is or should be the goal for most speakers. Sometimes the authenticity is in the message. I remember a speech from 1967. The speaker was a black man from South Africa and we the audience were students. His English was bad, accent had to be listened to to understand, he wasn’t loud or emotional or dramatic. But was he authentic! Most of us learned about apartheid for the first time that night. All were converted to the anti-apartheid cause. His presence, an exile from his land, reaching out and haltingly trying to explain was quite sufficient. Best live speech I ever heard. So how do you deal with an unruly audience. Sometimes it is nearly impossible, particularly when speaking, after a drink laden dinner about a serious topic. I clearly recall, one night after 12 midnight, getting up to speak to a rural Ireland audience. They were very courteous – mannerly to a fault. They were also catatonic from drink, tiredness, boredom from three previous speakers at the end of a hard weeks work. I could see they weren’t listening to my delightful story. I modulated my voice, I used by arms. Eye contact was like looking into the eyes of a fish on a fishmongers slab. I tried my final shot. I stopped talking I stood silent for ten seconds. Now ten seconds is a really, really long time on stage. There was no reaction. By the eight second a few people realised something was wrong and a chair or two scraped. This audience was not for waking. I quickly said thanks and sat down. At the end of a speech it is no harm to say again what the main point you were making was. I would welcome any readers’ comments and indeed we will publish them here. Thank you.