Back from the 2011 UK Speechwriters’ Guild annual conference in Bournemouth. Thoughts.

The conference was preceded by an interesting new initiative, the first UK Business Speaker of the Year competition. It was won in a canter by Phillip Khan-Panni, whose superb voice and timing demolished the other competitors. More importantly, insofar as the exercise was all about delivering a seven-minute motivational speech his was the only one which consistently developed a noteworthy thought, namely the logic and opportunity of Always Coming Second.

The other competitors in very different ways made a strong effort to be eloquent, ‘different’ and/or convincing, but ended up looking as if they were trying too hard or were delivering a well-rehearsed script. Much of their idea of ‘motivation’ dwindled to annoying unoriginal platitudes. As an attending American put it, "motivational speaking is a flawed business – what sort of person are you to need motivating by someone else?"

It also was notable that most of the competitors made the mistake of simply talking too much – there’s an important role for measured silence in speech-making, if only to allow the audience to absorb what you’ve been saying.

Anyway, this competition will surely grow from this first somewhat modest effort, although it remains to be seen how far senior business people will dare risk their reputations by taking part.

The Conference itself had many points of interest, including the valuable presence of a good number of speechwriters from different parts of the European Commission: EU speechwriting is of course a calamity. My contribution was a too short seminar on Speechwriting in English for Non-Native Speakers which some of them seemed to value.

Otherwise we heard among others Max Atkinson, who gave a practical and action-packed account of how not to use PowerPoint (tip to big corporations – don’t put your dismal PowerPoint presentations on the Internet, as many smart people will laugh at you).

Martin Shovel and Martha Leyton of CreativityWorks drew on some famous speeches to show the force of good old Anglo-Saxon words (albeit not the fun ones) rather than nasty Latin-based words ending in -ation as used by Gordon Brown.

Professional humorist and quite likeable Fred Metcalf delivered a cascade of jokes (some of them were even funny) and explained the problems involved in finding jokes for high-profile clients such as David Frost at a few minutes’ notice.

Conor Burns MP showed in an effective presentation why he is a rising force in UK political public speaking and indeed conservative thought.

Perhaps the best presentation in terms of sheer speaking ability came from Rod Clayton of Weber Shandwick who talked about providing material for commercial clients struggling with bad news. This theme was picked up by David Murray, editor of Vital Speeches of the Day, a decades-old US publication which adds to civilisation by printing strong speeches as they emerge.

David showed a series of videos of different people speaking under severe pressures of different sorts, including the utterly astoundingly awful and weird President Carter ‘Crisis of Confidence TV address. Watch it (but take precautions to stop your jaw hurting itself on the desk) as he rambles on in a nervous petulant way.

In short, the UK Speechwriters’ Guild conference is a good event, developing under Brian Jenner’s energy and leadership into Europe’s foremost forum for analysing public speaking technique and practice.

Some wider observations.

Over the time I was in Bournemouth I watched some 20 presentations of different shapes and sizes, so it was an excellent opportunity to think about what works and what does not in public speaking.

The key problem of being a speechwriter is, basically, the speaker who has to deliver the final product. Many of the conference presentations by the speechwriting experts themselves were heavily ‘over-scripted’ and therefore in a real way unengaging. The audience found themselves hearing the speaker say something interesting but then lose eye-contact as s/he looked for the next paragraph. 

Sometimes a speaker has no choice but to read from a prepared script: the words concerned have been chosen very carefully and there is no room for error or improvisation. See the clips here of the first-ever speech by a serving Head of MI6. Sir John Sawers makes the best of it by trying to engage his eyes and tone with the audience as far as possible:

But those occasions are rare. Most speakers are not giving high-profile policy speeches. So they need to make for themselves space to improvise and to talk to the audience as if in a conversation. And the speechwriter needs to serve up a text which helps the speaker make that happen.

A speech is not a lecture. It almost never should be the occasion for a human fax machine emitting a prepared text.

Nor is it a piece of acting, where the speaker has to learn every line and nuance and gesture in advance. I was struck when one of the conference speakers told me how he rehearsed these presentations. I never rehearse. The audience are sitting there to listen to you being yourself on the day as best you can be, not someone pretending to be you or to you pretending to be someone else.

So when you are delivering a speech, do it as if you are talking to only a small group of people. Try to be engaging, spontaneous, sincere and interesting. If you have no special message or point of interest to convey, don’t speak!

Basically, a speech is a conversation between the speaker and the audience. Yes, for the most part the speaker is the one doing the actual talking during that conversation. But the audience are giving all sorts of non-verbal replies as the speech progresses: laughter, smiles, applause, frowns, puzzled looks, snores.

Conclusion. It’s one thing to be a good speechwriter. Quite another to be a good public speaker.