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Storytelling as a business tool

All businesses have a story. Rarely is it an unmitigated success story. Sometimes it’s a tale of triumph over adversity. Sometimes one of heroic failure. Occasionally it’s a tragi-comedy bordering on farce. After all, most businesses never make it big. Many fail within a year, leaving their owners with nothing but a story. (And perhaps a determination to try again.)

Successful or not, though, it’s a rare distinction to be able to tell the story of your business in a compelling way. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve clicked on the ‘Our Story’ page of a company website only to be disappointed by the lack of storytelling. No engaging characters. No plot to speak of… ‘We’ve been passionate about biscuits since 2013’ is not a story! But a really good story is the mark of a great brand. It captures the imagination of the public, your customers and stakeholders.

Heroes and villains

Think of the Body Shop. Founded by Anita Roddick in 1976, the alternative cosmetics company embodied the idea that business could be a force for good. More than skincare products and bath salts, it was selling that idea, and appealing to consumers’ ideals as well as their sense of smell. This storytelling even had cute animals being saved from testing! And nearly 50 years on, it’s going strong.

Or Virgin. Also led by a charismatic personality in Richard Branson, the group has comprised a wide array of ventures over the years. Some more successful than others. But all embodying a spirit of entrepreneurship and aspiration that continues to connect Virgin Active gyms with Virgin Galactic space tourism.

Of course, the stories behind successful business are not always so flattering to their founders. Everyone knows Mark Zuckerberg started his career by developing an app that let his geeky friends rate the attractiveness of female students at Harvard. And the subsequent rise and rise of Facebook is regarded as sinister even by many of the billions who use it every day. Zuckerberg doesn’t seem to mind!

Stories get retold

Other stories are more ambiguous, but no less compelling. The founders of Adidas and Puma have a story of sibling rivalry that would not be out of place in a Wagnerian opera. Bill Gates was the college drop-out who started a business in his garage and changed the world. (As a businessman, even Donald Trump had a rags-to-riches story of sorts; starting out with a ‘small loan’ of a million dollars from his dad!) Gates made himself a billionaire in the process, without exactly making himself a beloved public figure.

Again, it hardly matters as long as we continue to use Windows, Word and the rest. And we do. They might lack the creative aura of Apple products, but the Microsoft story is about ubiquity. It’s the industry standard – having got there by fair means or foul! – and we know its software is going to be compatible with products used by our colleagues, clients, family and friends.

Only connect!

What’s important about these stories, then, is not so much the personalities involved, whether heroes or villains. It’s how they connected with the public, often shaping a market that wasn’t even there before they came along. My own story is a case in point, and it can’t be entirely down to my sparkling personality!

I was working in the City when a friend asked me to help with a best man speech. We spent a fun evening in the pub, during which I basically dictated what turned out to be a very well-received speech for him. Maybe he was joking when he said I should do it for a living, but the seed was planted. I placed an advert in Private Eye and discovered that at least a handful of people were prepared to pay for a speechwriting service.

A few years later, I was doing it full time and even brought in other writers to meet the demand. There have been ups and downs – not least Covid, when weddings and similar events stopped completely! – but by then we also had corporate and copywriting clients, and have successfully added strategic advisory services to speechwriting.

I’ve left a lot out, of course, but that’s the point. Storytelling does not mean narrating everything that’s happened since Day One. What matters is what motivates you, and how that meets an otherwise unmet demand. Whether that’s for ethically sourced toiletries or a new way to keep in touch with friends, the key is that the business strikes a chord. That’s the story.

Storytelling captures the imagination

So when you’re thinking about telling your story, focus on human connections. How the founders met is often a good one. But better still is how they turned strangers into customers by connecting with their needs. Tell that story, and you’ll capture imaginations.

The magic of storytelling

The magic of storytelling

Simon and Nina had been so engrossed in their first 82 minutes of parenthood, they barely registered the arrival in the maternity ward of a serene lady wearing a pale blue hooded tunic and waving a sparkling wand.

Well, well.  She is beautiful!” exclaimed the Fairy Godmother.

The couple, whose world had been so completely discombobulated  by the afternoon’s events, were barely surprised to find themselves in conversation with a complete stranger.

Don’t worry, I’ll leave you alone in a moment.  I just want to ask what you wish for your child’s future?”

This was quite a question to ask a couple who had barely slept for two days.  Fortunately, Simon had earlier taken a well-deserved break from holding damp towels in the birthing centre, during which he’d spent fifteen minutes trying to make sense of what was about to happen to his life.  Struggling for answers, he had picked-up his phone and spoken to the partner he trusted most.

Google, what do parents aspire to on behalf of their kids?” he had asked, full of curiosity.

He had been directed to articles by Journal of Clinical Psychology, the Journal of Happiness Studies and even UNICEF.  And now, looking into the tightly shut eyes of his firstborn, Simon understood that money and fame and success are not what parents really want. 

Thank you for asking Fairy Godmother” he answered.  “You may be surprised to hear that I do not aspire for my little princess to win Celebrity Dancing on Ice or become a Tik Tok influencer (unless those things truly make her fulfilled).  What I really want is for her to enjoy a life of happiness, good health, independence and confidence.

Simon’s partner Nina looked a little surprised but also impressed, because it was only yesterday that Simon had hoped his daughter would one-day garner a million followers on X formerly known as Twitter.  But the miracle of childbirth had clearly worked its magic.

I cannot promise you all that, for life is impossible to control.  But I can tell you precisely how to maximise your chances” explained the Fairy Godmother who may have occasionally moonlighted as a management consultant.

In the words of the great Ursula Le Guin, ‘there have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories’. The magic of storytelling is limitless.

Stories are the true elixir of happiness.  ‘Once upon a time’ leads us into our very own spaceship or time machine.

Read to her.  Tell her stories.  Introduce her to the magic of books.  Encourage her to read anything that catches her imagination.  Give her access to inspirational tales, to great works of fiction, to comic books and ebooks and the world of film.  And, as a direct result, your wishes will, in all likelihood, be realised.

Golly” said Nina, who, despite her aching body and immense fatigue, was feeling rather upbeat.

Amazing” said Simon, who, despite his own exhaustion, was overcome by the realisation that through storytelling comes moral reasoning, empathy and character development.  As well as a direct route to literacy.  To cap it all, he realised with increasing excitement, it’s all pretty much free, give or take a few library fines.

Literacy is a source of pleasure and an effective medicine too” the Fairy Godmother explained softly.  “According to the ninth Annual Literacy Survey of 49,047 children and young people in the UK, those who are most engaged with literacy are an extraordinary three times more likely to have higher levels of mental wellbeing than children who are the least engaged.”

Wow!  It’s a tonic.  It’s supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!” exclaimed Simon, his sense of exhilaration growing by the second.  It was as if his understanding of parenthood had emerged from the thickest of fogs.

But please be aware that, on the horizon, lie terrible threats to your baby girl.”

The new parents looked aghast. Because moments of profound joy and insight should not be clouded by doubt or fear.  And Nina was certain there was neither an old spinning wheel in the attic, nor a pea under the mattress in the spare room.

The Fairy Godmother continued regardless.

“Yes, many children are gifted a love of stories.  Hearing them, dreaming about them, telling them and even trying to write them.  But there will be times when you are too busy to engage with her.  When it is easier to leave her in front of a screen rather than a book.  For many, that is the beginning of the end.  This year, fewer children say they enjoy reading or writing than ever before.  And in the county of Oxfordshire, a child born into a town with serious literacy challenges is likely to live for 26 years fewer than one from an area with high levels of literacy.”

“Gosh” exclaimed both new parents in unison.

That’s more than a quarter of a Century” gasped Simon, who, in the presence of the lady in the powder blue tunic, was increasingly sounding like an eight-and-a-half-year-old.

Sadly” continued the Fairy Godmother, “the art of story-telling is not always understood in the world of education.  Some teachers become jaded and forget the magic of stories and the imagination. They will teach only from textbooks.  Fill screens with facts and bullets.  And forget that stories are the key that unlocks hidden worlds of knowledge and learning.

Simon nodded sagely, having lost all interest in science under the influence of a teacher who spent lessons projecting long bullet-pointed sentences onto the classroom wall, reading them out word-for-word in a lifeless monotone. Simon had spent those lessons mastering the art of nose picking with an HB pencil.

And even if her love of story-telling survives into adulthood, she will be met by Wicked Witches who use PowerPoint as a weapon that can numb the sharpest minds and suffocate the most vibrant of imaginations.

“Have you heard of the great Spanish artist Pablo Picasso?

Nina nodded.  “Yes” shouted Simon, raising his arm into the air with the vigour of a boy hoping he was about to be awarded a house point.

You must help your daughter understand the wisdom of his words: ‘Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.’  Because every child is also a story-lover and they must learn to remain so.

Simon and Nina looked each other in the eye, knowing that they had, at some point, fallen out of love with story-telling, and that their lives had been the worse for it.  Simon visibly flinched as he remembered a Zoom call with a potential client that he had begun with the words “There are seventeen things I’d like to tell you about our company”.  And even on his dusty laptop screen, he had seen the lady’s eyes glaze over, and the prospect of business fly away.

The Fairy Godmother must have sensed the change in mood.

Don’t worry my dears.  It is not embarrassing for you to wish success for your daughter in the field she chooses.  And even in the cynical and relentless world of business, stories win through.

“The Harvard Business Review Insights conclude that emotional connections with consumers, showcasing the immersive power of a brand’s story, create a 25% increase in revenue.

Nina began to suspect that this was no normal Fairy Godmother.

Yes, Apple and Nike are brilliant examples of businesses who have mastered the emotional grip of narrative.  And it’s the very same logic that makes us all love a great TED talk.  Studies indicate a 20% leap in comprehension of complex subjects after someone has watched one.  Which, in a nutshell, is the power of story-telling.

And, as if by magic, the Fairy Godmother turned round and skipped out of the room, leaving Simon and Nina entranced and excited by all they could do for their child.

Did you know” said Nina, “that storytelling potentially elevates kids’ levels of empathy by 35%?”.

Oh yes” Simon replied.  “I read that paper by the American Psychological Association during our last NCT class.”

“I think this has ceased to be a fairy tale.”

“Agreed.  I need to re-think my business pitch.”

“And I want to call our baby Rapunzel.

Simon looked up at Nina who was staring lovingly at their daughter.

Done.”

We have always been passionate about storytelling as a communication tool.  Stories hook audiences and readers in. They enable us to persuade, inspire and succeed.

More importantly, it provides children with a gateway to literacy, imagination, and wellbeing with extraordinary lifelong benefits, including longer life expectancy. That’s the magic of storytelling.

And it’s why we are so proud and delighted to announce our partnership with the Story Museum in Oxford whose mission is to enrich lives, especially young lives, through stories.  The Museum is a brilliant, creative and inspirational place to visit.  It also runs outreach programmes to help develop literacy in places where it is needed most.

This Christmas, we are matching donations made to Start With a Story this Christmas – JustGiving. If you’d like to know more, arrange a visit, or make a pledge, please contact Story Museum Senior Fundraiser, Niamh Walshe.

How to write your TED talk

How to write your TED talk?

I love watching a TED talk. Almost as much as I enjoy writing one!

These engaging and informative online ‘speeches’ have given public speaking a new lease of life for the 21st century. They’re short enough to absorb easily, but long enough to be intellectually satisfying. And they’re fantastic for sharing and sparking conversations.

We are often asked to help prospective TED (or TED-style) speakers hone their message. And to ensure they avoid some of the pitfalls that can make TED talks fail. Or, worse, go viral for the wrong reasons! So what makes the best TED talks tick?

How did TED begin?

TED started life as a one-off conference in 1984, arising from co-founder Richard Saul Wurman’s prescient observation of ‘a powerful convergence among three fields: technology, entertainment and design’. It’s testament to the success of the resulting viral video phenomenon that few people even remember the meaning of the acronym.

Certainly, many of the most successful talks have little to do with technology, entertainment or design. (Except in the sense that they’re entertaining talks delivered via well-designed technology.) The most popular of all time include my personal favourite, Sir Ken Robinson on how schools undermine creativity, Simon Sinek on what makes a great leader and Bill Gates on ‘the next outbreak’ (recorded five years before Covid).

TED really stands for ‘inspirational’

There’s now a wider TEDx movement of talks organised independently of TED itself but in the same format. And many other TED-style events and videos that are inspired by the phenomenon without being affiliated with the organisation at all. Whether we’re writing for a formal TED talk or something else, though, when people ask us to help with a ‘TED-type speech’, we know exactly what they mean.

It’s going to be a bit longer than the standard ten-minute social speech. But it’s not a lecture or a business presentation. The ideal length will be 15-18 minutes, and it has to be engaging from start to finish. If there are going to be visuals, they need to complement rather than competing with the spoken word. (But then that should be a given anyway!) And the focus has to be on making a direct connection with the audience, both in the room and (potentially) around the world.

The TED risk

The great strength of the TED format is that it’s accessible, easy to follow and involves a blend of intellectual stimulation and emotional intelligence. The weakness is that it can be a little formulaic, which is what makes it eminently spoofable. At their worst, TED speakers can come across as self-satisfied, even messianic. With apologies to readers in the Golden State, there’s a slightly irritating tendency that the rest of us sometimes describe with a wry smile as ‘Californian’!

This is easily avoided, though. The key is humility, and ideally a bit of humour. In general, we advise speakers to ‘know your audience’, which can be tricky when you’re looking to go viral. But no TED talk is going to appeal to everyone, so it’s helpful to have at least a rough ‘ideal listener’ in mind. That way you can focus on what’s relevant to them.

Be unique

Ask yourself what you have to offer. What are you saying that’s unique to you? And how will it benefit your ideal listener? Once you’ve answered those questions, you can give your talk a laser focus. You’re not there to save the world, or to win millions of followers for the sake of it, but to share a compelling idea. So keep to your point, and make sure all your examples and illustrations reinforce that point. Add a funny – and relevant! – anecdote or two and there’s even more chance your idea will stick in people’s minds.

How to write your TED talk – getting started

Before any TED talk can go viral, it has to make a real impact on at least one person. So don’t imagine you’re talking to the world, or even ‘the internet’. You’re talking to a smart and curious person who’s interested in what you have to say. And who you might be able to help or influence. If that person saw it on a Tuesday, how would you like them to describe your talk on Wednesday?  In no more than ten words.  That’s a brief that’s not just relevant to a TED talk, but to any speech, anytime, anywhere!

Political speeches and the art of silence

“We are masters of the unsaid words, but slaves of those we let slip out.”
Winston Churchill

Conference season 2023 was notable less for its diverse policy announcements and promises than for something noticeable and widespread across the parties: Silence.

SNP

Scottish First Minister Humza Yousaf brought the UK party conference season to a close. He affirmed that his SNP remains committed to not being part of the UK party conference season for long. While there was much talk of strategy, Yousaf emphasised that he and his party need to focus on the ‘why’ of Scottish independence, not just the ‘how’.

This was an implicit acknowledgement of the party’s polling numbers taking a hit in recent months, amid organisational turmoil and a general sense of the wheels coming off. It’s not at all clear that the nationalists have the numbers to win a referendum – despite Yousaf’s bullish insistence that he would welcome one ‘tomorrow’. It’s often the case in politics – and communications more generally – that what is not said is as significant as what is said. Hence the art of silence. “Our party is in crisis” said no successful political leader ever.

Conservatives

Ditto, “We are almost certainly going to lose the next general election”. This was the unspoken slogan of the Conservative Party conference earlier in the month. Even in terms of policy, the conference was largely dominated by the art of silence. Until the very end, when Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced – or rather confirmed – that the northern leg of HS2 was to be cancelled. Awkward, that, as the conference was held in Manchester, where the high-speed railway line had been due to terminate.

The prime minister’s other major policy announcements were raising the smoking age year-on-year so today’s 14-year-olds will never be allowed to buy tobacco, and scrapping A levels. (These policies presumably had a mixed reception round the back of the bike sheds.) Perhaps Sunak’s boldest gambit, though, was to position himself as the change candidate at the next election. His party might have been in power for 13 years, but he vowed to end a ’30 year status quo’. This effectively meant taking aim at the legacy of Tony Blair, the last major ‘change candidate’ to win big. (And, left unsaid, it also meant distancing himself from former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, the one-time ‘heir to Blair’.)

Labour

And that brings us to the bookies’ favourite to replace Sunak in Number 10. Even his most enthusiastic supporters would concede that Labour leader Kier Starmer is not a charismatic speaker. He is no Blair or even Cameron. And his pitch for change is based less on any positive vision for the future than in tapping into a widespread sense that the Conservatives are a spent force. That’s why many observers have suggested his best strategy is to rely on the art of silence.

Starmer’s party conference speech had to reassure conservative-leaning voters that he’s a safe pair of hands. But without saying anything to alienate his left-wing base. In that sense, he could not have asked for a better start than to be glitter bombed by a protestor from the latest offshoot of Just Stop Oil. That both positioned him as ‘too moderate for some’ and handed him his best line: “Protest or power? That is why we changed our party”. He was then able to focus on setting out his priorities when in government, without any particularly headline-grabbing announcements. ‘Dull but determined,’ was the verdict of CNN. Job done, then.

The art of silence

Given that there will almost certainly be a general election next year, it was a relatively subdued party conference season. In part that reflects simple caginess, in part a sense of inevitability that change is coming. It might also be the result of a recognition that, in the fast-moving world of social media, politicians can’t expect to set the agenda with set-piece conference speeches in the way they once did. But they can certainly make fools of themselves by saying the wrong thing. That’s why voters are well-advised to pay as much attention to what politicians choose not to talk about as to what they actually say.

PS – the Liberals may or may not have mastered the art of silence. I’m afraid I can’t remember.

PPS – the art of silence isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just listen to the collected speeches of the late Queen.

Never explain, never complain: The power of Her Majesty’s silence

This article was published by The Spectator on 3rd June 2022

The Queen’s Christmas message in 2002 was unusual. She explained, briefly, her approach to her role. One could even say that she ‘opened up’:

‘Each day is a new beginning, I know that the only way to live my life is to try to do what is right, to take the long view, to give of my best in all that the day brings, and to put my trust in God.’

Her Majesty has spoken countless times subsequently. Her collective speeches have included many hundreds of thousands of words. In which, paradoxically, she has said very little. If asked to quote our monarch of seventy years, many of us would immediately jump in with two words: ‘Annus Horribilis’. And then struggle horribly.

Grief is the price we pay for love

I asked a colleague renowned for his encyclopaedic knowledge of speeches. He remembered ‘Grief is the price we pay for love’, her beautiful, stoical observation on the passing of Prince Philip. He also recollected her promise made on her 21st birthday in 1947: ‘I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.’

It would be safe to say that amongst the tea towels, key rings and tea-sets on sale in this Platinum Jubilee year, we are unlikely to find a book entitled ‘The Queen’s 21 most inspiring speeches’. Or even her 21 most memorable quotations.

Seen but not heard

This is, of course, not something that has happened by chance. Our monarch made an early and eminently sensible decision to lead by example. To retain the mystique of the monarchy; to be seen but not heard; to never explain, never complain. In the early stages of the broadcasting age, this showed considerable vision. In the context of social media it has become essential.

Her willingness to endure the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune means the greatest celebrity of our age is also the most respected. She has not only understood that actions speak louder than words, ironically a maxim first articulated by that master orator Abraham Lincoln, but she adhered to it throughout.

Family faux pas

How unfortunate for her then that almost every crisis to embroil her monarchy under her watch has been fuelled by her family failing to heed her example. Her husband’s foot was, notoriously, never far from his mouth. Her eldest son and heir has been teased for his conversations with plants, ridiculed for his desire to be reincarnated as a tampon and lambasted for ‘whatever ‘in love’ means’, his timeless gift to best men the world over.

And then came Harry. Calling his Asian army colleague a ‘Paki’ was probably the nadir of his single days. Originally he stumbled into faux pas. Now he prepares them carefully. He has described the First Amendment as ‘bonkers’, his father’s parenting as not making sense and his life of neglect. He has announced that ‘I like to think we were able to speak truths’, even when these truths seem a little delusional. In April we discovered that he popped home to see a grandmother who tells him things ‘she hides from others’. He also wanted to ensure she was receiving the right protection’.

Harry rolls out words, and with them, yet another layer of the Royal family’s aura and dignity is peeled away. As he boasted of his special relationship with the Queen, she remained silent.

The power of brevity

We are subsumed by rhetoric. Never before have so many had the technological platform to address us in our own homes. As public speakers, it becomes increasingly difficult to be memorable for the right reasons. Speeches are stripped for soundbites. Gaffes go viral. Some, like President Zelensky, still manage to shine. Many more flounder. A rare few have taken the opposite route by understanding that the best way to make their point within this maelstrom of noise, is not to add to it.

When she does speak, the Queen’s points are made with the opposite of a flourish. They represent an attitude and an approach rather than any attempt at rhetorical flair. Which, in essence, is her greatness. An ability to treat the two imposters with unruffled calm.

In seventy years on the throne, she has only given four formal addresses to the nation. Each time, we listened. Ronan Keating of Boyzone sang ‘you say it best when you say nothing at all’. As a piece of communications advice for modern royalty, it is unmatched in its good sense. If any member of the family can vouch for that, it’s Harry’s Uncle Andrew.

Are you guilty of suffocation by slides…or death by bullet point?

As he entered the bar, Alan had rarely felt so energised or prepared.  He’d ironed his favourite laser-blue shirt, showered, shaved and left home wearing just a hint of Paco Rabanne.  Intriguingly, he was holding a laptop.

Five minutes later she arrived.  The woman of his dreams.  They hugged a little sheepishly and sat down at the corner table he’d confirmed with the manager the previous day.  They ordered drinks and he opened the laptop.

Well Naomi” he began, clicking ‘presentation view’ on the PowerPoint that had appeared on screen.  “I’m so delighted you’ve made the time to meet.  There are 17 things I’d really like to tell you about me.  So let’s start with my family history.  I’ve pulled it together into this organogram.  And here’s a map of Europe with all the places I’ve travelled to.

Madness?  You’d think so.  But in meeting rooms all around the world, very similar conversations take place every hour of every day.  The only difference is that, unlike Alan, they believe that because they are at work, this type of discourse is normal.

My friend David needed a specific piece of legal advice around building in a conservation area.  He called a well-known firm of property lawyers for an introductory meeting.  The partner poured him a coffee, asked how he was, dimmed the lights and proceeded to read-out-loud a series of slides projected onto a screen on the wall.  These contained information ranging from a list of the firm’s services to biographies of its senior partners.  One small detail it omitted was any reference to building in a conservation area. 

It’s as if initiation into corporate life includes a dictat that people look more professional if they say something totally irrelevant while pointing to a screen that says the very same thing. Perhaps there was an occasion when a firm lost a client because it wrongly assumed they could read?  In practise, it creates a ‘Redundancy Effect’ where our ability to listen and learn is hindered by receiving the same information simultaneously in different forms.

Things were already bad before 2020, with meeting rooms, lecture halls and conference centres playing host to this suffocation by slides.  Then Covid struck.  And with it came exponential growth in PowerPoint.  Corporate updates, pitches and restructuring models were presented on Zoom and Teams.  Remoteness provided speakers with a false sense of security.  If things were going really badly they could sit very still with their mouths open and pretend to be experiencing bad reception.  Or claim that a life-saving delivery of loo roll had just arrived from Waitrose.  Either way, preparation and originality seemed to disappear at precisely the same time as commuting and socialising.

The result was list after list on slides with headings like ‘Background’, ‘Context’, ‘Introduction’ and ‘Overview’.  One presentation I sat through included all four.

And if that wasn’t enough, the government and its senior advisors took thinks to an entirely new level.  Whitty was doing it, Valance was doing it, even the Minister for Health was doing it.  We were told to follow the science.  Science told us to follow the slides.  SAGE and Independent SAGE locked fonts.  Lockdown sceptics like the Barrington Declaration hit back with their own charts and graphs.

The presentation pandemic continued to grow in severity even as Covid rates fell.  Jonathan Van Tam was knighted for his unflagging attempt to replace slides with similes.

The vaccine was good news for mankind, but bad news from those suffering from presentation fatigue.  It spurned a new wave of charts and unnecessary written commentary.  The double vaccinated were less likely to die from Covid, leaving us more susceptible to the misery of death by bullet point.

In recent months, face-to-face meetings and conferences have started again in earnest.  But the presentation pandemic shows no sign of abating.  Last week at work a client asked me to take a look at his new deck.  Sadly, this wasn’t a nautical reference but 93 slides containing no less than 8,500 words.  A fifth as many as The Great Gatsby. 

This needs to stop for many reasons.  For a start, the more charts, tables and bullets put in front of an audience, the more the key message is likely to be lost in the detail.  It’s common sense.  There’s a reason that nobody arrives on a first date with a slide show.  It creates a barrier between two parties, stymying conversation and clothing what really matters.

But don’t blame Bill Gates.  PowerPoint has been misused.  A great speaker who engages an audience with a compelling narrative may click to reveal a spectacular image or two to reinforce their main point.  Science suggests we remember images that accompany a story much longer than words.  The advertising industry has worked that one out pretty successfully. 

The advice I offer anyone giving a ‘presentation’ is to ban the word ‘presentation’.  You are either giving a speech – that will keep an audience captive, possibly with some great illustrations.  Or you are sending a written document that needs to be absorbed quietly with an opportunity to ask questions afterwards.

The ‘presentation’ falls into an ever-widening grey area between the two, where the ‘presenter’ uses the slides as a script.   Audiences arrive with a camera at the ready, ignoring the speaker but snapping a picture of every slide.

I meet speakers who say that detailed slides make their life easier.  But it’s the audience whose life should be made easier by an interesting, informative and empathetic talk.  Endless slides compete with the speaker for attention.  And win.  Because most of us can read faster than we can listen.

So if you’re wondering about the best way for someone to remember your crucial message at work, imagine you’re not at work at all.  How would you explain it to a friend over a glass of wine?  If you’d begin with five minutes of background followed by a few bulleted slides full of context, you should meet a lovely chap called Alan.

Public speaking lessons from Boris and Daddy Pig

1. Losing your train of thought is many people’s biggest public speaking fear.

2. That’s why I’m a big believer in having a script to hand – if only as a safety net.

3. Boris’ problem was that his speech wasn’t relevant to his audience, it wasn’t clear enough, and he didn’t know it well enough.

4. And rather than following the script, he went off piste (Daddy Pig et al).

5. There’s nothing wrong with a story or a bit of levity in a speech – it can be a great strength as Boris has demonstrated so often.

6. The problem with ad libbing isn’t getting started. It’s seamlessly returning to the core narrative.

7. That’s why it’s best to plan what you’re going to say in advance and stick to it – great speakers can give the impression they are ad libbing the best prepared script (take Churchill‘s public speaking nugget: “I’m busy preparing my impromptu remarks”).

8. So for anyone panicking that this could happen to you- the answer isn’t to revert to dull slides and lists.

9. It’s to know what you’re going to say, where to find it on the page, and how long it’s going to take.

10. Public speaking: Rehearse it – and then stick to it!

I posted these thoughts on LinkedIn and received some interesting comments. Some felt inauthentic using a script. Others feel naked without one. The misunderstanding is that you have to read out a speech like a text book. See it more as a safety net. Something to reassure you without suffocating your passion for the subject. Your speech can still be a persuasive performance with some notes to refer to when required.


#publicspeaking

A single tip to help you speak more persuasively


You know too much about your subject”. No, it’s not something any of us got told too often at school! But when it comes to a big speech or pitch it can be a real issue. That’s because clear, simple, benefit-led messaging will help you speak more persuasively. And too much detail does the very opposite.

Maybe you’re selling an idea, a product or a new service?

Or you’re speaking at a conference desperate to say something that covers everything your audience may want to hear?

You might be giving a speech about a friend at a party, and start with a list of everything you want to say and all the stories you want to tell.

That’s the moment to stop.

If you want to speak more persuasively, the key is not to cover all the points. Or to try to answer every possible question that might be asked by every single member of your audience. Or to begin by explaining all the things you are about to say.

If you take that approach, you’ll most likely speak in long lists. And lists don’t work because:

1) Nobody will remember them all.

2) They are, quite frankly, pretty dull!

If you meet a friend for a drink and they start the conversation by listing everything they are about to tell you, you’ll start looking at your watch pretty quickly. So why would that be any different when you’re speaking to a bigger crowd?

But with all that knowledge at your disposal, how do you decide where to focus? Simple:

Here’s the simple tip to help you speak more persuasively

Imagine there’s a reporter at the event (for some of you, having reporters at your event requires no imagination at all!). Then imagine the best possible write-up they could give your speech in tomorrow’s paper. And then write the headline you’d like to sit at the very top of that article.

And that, in a nutshell, is your key message. It should provide the focus for everything you say – from the structure you choose to the tone you take.

In almost every case, that headline will be a benefit for the audience to take away. Or an action. So, if you’re launching a new utilities app it might be: “Finally – a straightforward way to save money on your electricity bill“.

If you’re updating your team at the end of the year it might be: “Thanks to you we are in a good place. Now we need new ideas for our clients in the new year“.

If you’re presenting an award it might be: “Our organisation is all about positive change and this award recognises someone who encapsulates positivity and change“.

The headline becomes the brief for everything you do from that point on. It’s a way of choosing your content and avoiding lists. It gives you a clear idea of the ‘hook’ you could use to grab attention and prioritise your key message.

Knowing a huge amount about your subject isn’t really a weakness. But it can get in the way of speaking clearly, relevantly and empathetically. And, after all, those are the qualities that separate the great speakers from the good ones!

Why great business writing is a translation service


We tend to think of translation as a language thing. Translators help us understand what someone is saying in their native tongue. Without their help, all we hear is noise.

Business writing shouldn’t need translating in quite the same way. But all too often it is put together in a way that makes it almost impenetrable. The most common reasons for this are:

Technical people writing in a technical way

An engineer has to write a paper requesting budget for a pedestrian bridge over a railway. She sets out the type of material she requires, the way the bridge will be supported and the time it will take to build. She includes tables evidencing her findings. What she excludes is the reason the bridge needs to be built in the first place – it will enable the closure of a level crossing that has led to three fatalities in recent years. She needs to translate the mechanics of the job into a benefit to the railway.

Business writing in a bubble

We tend to work alongside likeminded people. People who ‘get’ our jargon, understand our acronyms and share our thought processes. This can leave people outside the bubble completely baffled. The coroner reporting on the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London suggested that delays were caused because the emergency services couldn’t immediately understand language being used within the transport system.

Too much focus on the ‘what’

Bill Bryson’s ‘At Home’ quotes Alexnader Bell’s explanation of his famous invention:

The telephone may be briefly described as an electrical contrivance for reproducing in different places the tones and articulations of a speaker’s voice so that conversations can be carried on by word of mouth between persons in different rooms, in different street or in different towns. The great advantage it possesses over every other form of electrical apparatus is that it requires no skill to operate the instrument.

Arguably: “The telephone allows you simply to speak to someone in a different place” would have done the job!

Showing off

You work hard, you gain your qualifications, you do your research and you have a paper to write. So why not demonstrate just how brilliant you are to the powers that be?

The problem is that someone who finds it hard to understand your work won’t necessarily be impressed with all the technical information and the long words. This is common sense rather than technical business writing consultancy, but if you’d feel awkward explaining your work to a friend in the pub in this way, it’s probably not a good idea to write like it.

Your job is to know your stuff and then to translate it into words that your reader can understand.

Writing before planning

There’s a huge temptation to start a business writing project by writing! By ‘getting something down’ to get the juices flowing and seeing where they get you.

My strong advice is that this causes more trouble than it solves. Editing a complex piece of writing can take considerably more time than writing it from scratch. But only if you know exactly what you want to say.

If you write a draft without a ‘key takeaway message’ in mind, it’s imposible to write clean, punchy text. Likewise, if you haven’t mapped-out your argument before writing it, you’ll keep changing direction and changing the text as you go.

Clear writing is almost inevitably a result of clear thinking. Which means planning how to make your thoughts relevant first, then stepping away before you start typing.

So, ‘translating’ your business writing means:

  1. Putting your reader first
  2. Working out what’s relevant to them
  3. Understanding what they need to take away from your work
  4. Planning a structure to fit
  5. Dropping your ‘evidence’ into that structure
  6. Then focusing on writing in language they will get
  7. Keeping it simple, brief and in an appropriate tone
  8. Checking it by imaging a friend from another walk of life reading it and editing anything they wouldn’t understand!

Please give us a call if you’d like to discuss this further – we help coach business people how to get the best results from their writing.

ESL – A new acronym for appalling communication

The owners behind the #EuropeanSuperLeague have been castigated for their greed, selfishness and lack of understanding. But let’s not forget their completely incompetent communication skills.

Great communication ticks three boxes: It’s relevant, it’s clear and, where possible, it’s empathetic. Let’s see how they performed in each area:

Relevance

This means understanding your audience. Who are you speaking to? What do you want them to remember? What language and tone are appropriate to them?

So addressing fans as ‘stakeholders’ was about as effective as turning round and scoring an own goal before the opposition had touched the ball. Explaining the benefit of the new league as “generating resources and stability for the full football pyramid” was odd, considering that the proposed structure removed the league from the pyramid altogether.

In fact, it was the complete lack of relevance to anybody other than themselves that created the comms miracle of uniting Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn, Andy Burnham, the FA, FIFA, UEFA, the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga and Prince William. Against them.

Clarity

This should be pretty self-explanatory. If you don’t understand it, you can’t buy into it. And the logistics should have been pretty simple to communicate. But the owners managed to get that wrong too. The proposed league wasn’t set-up to replace domestic leagues at all but to run in conjunction with them (instead of existing European competitions). That message bypassed the majority of commentators.

Empathy

Where do you start? Generally by creating an emotional connection with the people who you need to hear, understand and react positively to your story.

None of these happen by accident. They require a deep understanding of your target audience, a lot of research, and a clear vision of what will happen after the news breaks.

The ESL owners managed to do the opposite. This raises a whole load of questions about ‘fit and proper’ club ownership, democracy in football and wider governance. But from a comms perspective it was, simply, a benchmark for complete and utter incompetence. Something that can be avoided by checking what you’re going to say against three words without paying a cent.

Lawrence

Why didn’t Katie read Ron’s brilliant report?

Katie Brook is busier than ever.

Today, she has to sit-in on six hours of Zoom meetings. By 4pm, her email inbox will have over 100 unread items. She still has an article to write for the industry press, a speech to prepare about the forthcoming ‘return to work’ and some online shopping to do for her eldest daughter’s 18th birthday.

Once that lot’s done, she’ll go for a walk and hopefully get time to cook, share a glass of wine with her husband and watch Season Four, Episode five of the Crown. Then it’s shower, bed and start all over again tomorrow.

Tomorrow begins with a Board meeting. Six papers will be presented by team leaders on subjects ranging from internal audit to product development. These will emailed together in a pack before close of business today, and she’ll do what she can to review them before the meeting.

Katie’s perspective

The meeting starts at nine am. Before that, she’ll go for a run, have breakfast with her daughters, read the papers, check her emails and call her assistant.

So you can imagine how she feels at eight pm, when she opens the board meeting pack. The reports and presentations sent through in advance add-up to 236 sides of A4. That’s 130,000 words not including diagrams.

130,000 words. That’s 3,000 words longer that William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island combined!

Katie stares at her screen desperately trying to work out what she needs to take from these documents and eventually just gives-in. It’s late. She’s tired. Her eyes hurt.

Ron’s perspective

Meanwhile, Ron Davidson is also watching the Crown. He has a beer in hand. He’s feeling really pleased with himself. It’s been a tough month. That report on health and safety in the company’s offices around Europe has been a real challenge. Covid restrictions have meant doing the whole thing remotely, which has meant relying on others to feed him huge amounts of data and images. At one point, he had over 200 pages of information that he needed to distil into this report.  

The report is something to be proud of. It’s full of tables, pie charts and analysis. He has explained his methodology in full to ensure that the Board can be 100% certain that he has hasn’t cut any corners. He has analysed each warehouse separately, offering commentary on every facet of its safety. He’s even offered three potential solutions for every problem he’s identified. There hasn’t been a day this month that he hasn’t worked beyond 5pm, and he is certain the board will give him glowing feedback, not least because he has created an 18 slide summary of the report, each containing a comprehensive list of bullet points allowing him to use his 30 minute slot to cover every conceivable question in advance. Come to think of it, he really deserves another beer.

Report writing – the reality

Tomorrow morning will, of course, be a crushing disappointment for Katie and Ron. She will sit, frustrated and confused, wondering exactly what (if anything) actually needs to be done as a result of his work. He will be equally frustrated as he presents his findings to a bunch of executives who look increasingly distracted and glaze-eyed.

Nobody doubts that Ron has done his job, nor that Katie is a diligent, empathetic board member. But Ron has failed the relevance test. He has fallen into the trap of telling the decision makers what he’s done, instead of what they need to know. He has written the equivalent of an ‘About Us’ section of a report. It actually needs framing as ‘What you need to know and do’.

Ron isn’t alone of course. Every week, thousands of hours are wasted and some brilliant ideas are ignored. This is simply because people with deep, technical knowledge, fail to ‘translate’ it into something crisp and relatable to a busy decision maker.

It’s a hell of a shame, because Ron just needed to explain that the firm’s warehouses are in brilliant shape apart from an urgent issue that needs to addressed in Felixstowe. That particular problem can be found on page 17, paragraph three. Ron has, thoughtfully, highlighted it in red, but Katie never got that far.

We’d love to chat

We help translate knowledge into relevance. That’s what great communication is all about. Contact us.

How to turn your investor deck into a meeting


Daniel’s Story

Daniel told me a fascinating story.

He lives in England and remains close to his extended family in Ghana. As he earns more, he wants to send regular payments back home. But his grandparents live far from Accra and have no access to a bank. To receive his funds, they need to travel to the City with accreditation. They then have to pay to collect the cash before embarking on the long journey home.

Daniel reckons that up to 5% of the money he transfers is lost in the process, 3% at his end, 2% on receipt. He worries incessantly about his inability to track the transfer through to collection. And then his grandparents have no local bank. So they stash cash under the mattress until, inevitably, it runs out. They are, unable to make cashless payments or to utilise financial services in a region with no banks.

Daniel realised that his family were not alone.  There is a huge gulf between provision of financial services across continents.  Millions have similar problems. And millions more, particularly in Africa, have no access to the most basic banking facilities or investment vehicles.

Daniel’s business

So he is building Zendit.  An app that will make money transfers, banking services and even financial planning available to anyone.  Including those who live far away from the branch network.  All they’ll need is a smartphone.

Daniel is looking to raise £150,000 in equity, a relatively small amount to cover marketing and product development, with a view to an exit in two years.

Daniel’s investor deck error

It’s quite a story.  The app is brilliant and the upside is huge.  But when Daniel wrote his investor deck, he made a critical error.  He stopped thinking about the story and about the incredible benefits that Zendit could bring to families like his around the world.  Instead, he resorted to technical, institutionalised language.  His story became lost in a series of product features.

Daniel isn’t alone, of course.  He did something common to a large proportion of people writing investor decks.  They imagine that investors think differently.  That they are impressed by detail and jargon.  When, in fact, they are incredibly busy people who need to be excited and motivated by the business idea put in front of them.

A better way to write an investor deck

Investors, be they wealthy individuals, private equity forms or venture capital businesses, are human!  Yes, of course, they  need to scrutinise the financials, but they also need to understand why a new idea has potential.  And in almost every case, that means translating it’s ‘features’ into ‘benefits’.

Great investor decks – like all pitch documents:

1. Prioritise key messages.
2. Lead with benefits – to the end user and to the financial investor.
3. Are clear, simple and ensure that the detail doesn’t suffocate the headlines.
4. Remember that an investor deck is just the beginning of the investor journey.  Nobody signs-up without a meeting.  The deck just needs to unlock the door.

This graphic shows how Daniel’s deck was structured before and after we worked together:

No alt text provided for this image
A new, relevant structure for an investor deck

The new deck contains almost all the same information, but in a clearer, more relevant way.

To quote Daniel:

“Working with Lawrence has given me the confidence to explain Zendit’s amazing potential in the clearest way possible.  I had been suffocating its benefits by trying to list everything it can do in our investor deck.  It’s now transformed for the better.

If you’d like to see Daniel’s full deck, please contact him directly.

We’re all broadcasters now (and need urgent training!)


From a technological perspective, the switch to digital meetings has been pretty seamless.  Zoom, Teams and Google Meet have become the conference rooms of 2020. So why the need for training?

We have successfully made the physical transition to working from home.  But observing meetings and conferences since lockdown in many different countries and cultures, I sense that our communication skills have made a far less effective conversion.

We have spent years developing communication skills that work best in the flesh

This isn’t a surprise.  By the time we reach working age, we have spent many thousands of hours in the company of others.  We may not consider this as training, but it provides us with well-honed social antennae.  We learn to judge the mood in a room, read body language and interpret unspoken relationships and hierarchies.  Whether we are pitching, presenting or giving  a more formal speech, we react to these instincts and adapt accordingly.

We might make a joke to lighten the mood.  Instantly we know if it has had the desired effect and how to adjust our tone.  We will sense if a specific point has hit home. Notice if members of our audience are nodding in agreement, smiling in affirmation or sending more hostile, cynical signals.

Being in a room enables us to create meaningful eye-contact and to encourage interaction through the raising of hands or spotting immediately when someone is trying to jump-in.

We may take many of these skills for granted, but they are absolutely crucial in ensuring that we are relevant to each member of the audience, and responsive to their needs.  There are some crucial differences, but these are behaviours we have developed and finessed over many years, from the playground to the pub and from family meals to football matches.

Speaking to groups on screen requires a very different skill set

And then, in the space of days, all that experience, expertise and training became semi-redundant.  We lost the use of the handshake and the ability to make eye contact.  Video conferencing allowed us to be seen and heard, but the larger the audience, the greater the leap from our previous norm.

A video meeting between two people is hard enough, but is still riddled with challenges. Where to look? How still to sit? How to light the room? What’s the best way to interrupt?  Add another dozen attendees and the problems multiply.  How can you gauge the mood in all those room?  Can you make each member of your audience feel that you are speaking to them personally?  How can you encourage feedback and questions?

We were public speakers; we are now broadcasters

There is no magic answer because, unknowingly, we have taken on a new role in our professional lives.  We have become broadcasters.  We are speaking into a camera.  Our words are met with silence.  In this environment it is harder to have the confidence to pause, harder to communicate with energy, harder to understand the impact we are making.

In this setting, the ‘speech’ becomes a ‘show’; the conference a broadcast.  I spoke on Times Radio recently and was asked about Martin Luther King’s ‘Dream’ speech.  This wasn’t scripted.  In fact, Dr King had intended to give a different speech altogether. But he sensed the moment and, encouraged by his entourage “gave them the dream”.  That wouldn’t have been possible on a Zoom call!

Training is urgently required

This is not intended as a criticism of digital communication which has enabled many of us to stay in business (and sane!) during the crisis. But it does highlight the need for people speaking to groups via a camera to receive support and training that allows them to maximise their impact.

We will all have sat on the end of group calls this year listening to speakers sounding a little listless, lacking in energy and, as importantly, empathy.  The best broadcasters are able to close the empathy gap between speaking in the flesh and through a screen.

At Great Speech Writing we are helping our clients make that transition – and to speak with greater clarity, empathy and relevance online.  The pandemic will pass, but digital conferencing is here to stay.  Training your people to become better broadcasters is an investment that will create huge returns in the weeks and months to come.

Please call Lawrence directly on 07970 046 230 to discuss how we can help you write and deliver with more impact on and off screen.

What makes a good speech great?


On the 80th anniversary of Churchill’s ‘fight them on the beaches’ speech to Parliament, I was asked this morning on the radio to define what makes a good speech great.

There are, of course, any number of reasons. Great soundbites. Brilliant delivery. A perfect structure. All these matter. But ‘great’ means being the right speech for the audience at the time.

When sitting down to prepare a speech, it is all too easy to list all the things one wants to say. To tick-off important messages and demonstrate all ones knowledge. But these don’t make it great.

The key is to work out before you start, exactly what you are trying to achieve and to work backwards from that point. Churchill’s was, at its core, a motivational speech. His aim was to put fire in the belly of a nation. He found the words to do just that and back them up with clear, powerful delivery.

Kennedy’s ‘Man on the Moon’ speech or Martin Luther King’s ‘Dream’ took their audiences to a place in the future and gave them a reason to hope. As did Barak Obama’s ‘Yes We Can’.

Queen Elizabeth I sought to establish her credibility as a female monarch when she famously said “I may have the body of a week and feeble woman, but I have the heart and soul of a King and a King of England too.”

The vast majority of us will never address a nation. But the same principles apply whether we are speaking at work, at a wedding or at a small family gathering. Think first about the audience, their expectations and what you want them to do or remember as a result. Work back from there and the makings of a great speech are already in place.

And if you have a few minutes to spare, here’s the full interview:

What makes a good speech great? Lawrence interviewed on BBC Radio 4th June 2020

How to stand out in a crowded email inbox

I’ve unearthed some extraordinary (but unsurprising) stats. A huge proportion of our emails are never opened. Many an email is opened but never read in full. Then there are those that are read, but never responded to.

On the flip side, there are the serial emailers, who respond to everything, copying-in others wherever possible. This all creates a ‘Forth Bridge’ effect; by the time you clear out last night’s emails, your inbox is already filling up again.

I mentioned this to a friend yesterday who mentioned casually that he had 1,923 unread messages in his inbox. The implications are vast. It is difficult to concentrate. Impossible to relax. There’s a sense of ‘inbox pressure’ where we keep checking – and interrupting – our work and ‘off’ time.

The email relevance test

Here are eleven ways to pass the relevance test. See how many you score. And then please read tip twelve VERY carefully indeed.

1. Decide before you start writing what the single KEY message should be

2. Plan what you’re going to say before you start writing with that KEY message in mind

3. Write in language that is relevant to the reader

4. Prioritise your key message early in the email

5. Try to minimise attachments – opening and saving them is a major cause of grief and waste

6. Ensure that your writing is simple and jargon-free

7. Try to write in sentences of less than ten words

8. Break large chunks of text into short paragraphs

9. Keep your tone as relaxed and conversational as possible. If you read your draft and think you sound like a corporate bore, that’s a sign!

10. If you require a response make it clear what you need and when

11. When the email is ready to go, compose a SUBJECT that is relevant to the reader. Why might they want or need to open it? ‘Here’s your to-do list for next week’ works. ‘Tasks attached’ doesn’t.

12. Would it be quicker to make a call? If so, pick up the phone! And if you must send it, only copy somebody in if it is essential that they read it too.

We’d love to help you and your team become better communicators and we’re always happy to chat.

How to get your message across when you’re working from home.

Working from home doesn’t affect your performance. Does it?! You would never have Netflix on in the background while writing a report. Or read-up on some notes in a hot bath. Or pop-out to the shops between calls. Of course not!
But I am told that there are some very naughty people (not Linked-In to me, of course) who do just that. And with an increasing number of us being asked to work from home, our emails and calls are vying for attention with everything from the TV to the novel by the bed.
So it’s our job to maximise the chances of getting our message across relevantly and clearly. Which means:

Prioritise your key message

People with short attention spans need to see what’s important first. That’s the principle behind newspaper headlines, web links and even click bait. And it works. Make sure your message subject is clear and helpful. And that you decide exactly what you want the recipient of your email to remember – and get it in early.
Let’s pretend you have bad back ache. I know a physio who can help. Are you more likely to respond to a message that says: “I know someone who could have you free from pain in 30 minutes, call me” or this one: “I can give you the number of a professional with eight years’ experience who lives in Islington”? The second is factually correct. But the first wins because it has a positive benefit for you. It’s about the ‘why’ not the ‘what’. Which piques our interest.

Be brief

The kettle’s boiling, the horse racing starts in six minutes and the phone could ring at any moment. Let’s bear that in mind before we embark on long, detailed messages. If the email looks short, a colleague or client is likely to read it and remember what it says. There’s a reason why successful advertising straplines are typically six words or less.

And simple

You’ll never get thanked for wasting anyone’s time. Nor for making them feel confused or inadequate. And yet so many people in a work environment feel compelled to write in a tortuous, over-complicated way to demonstrate just how institutionalised and important they have become. Keeping it simple isn’t original, but it’ll ensure there are no barriers between your email being opened and read.
Get on the phone

Pick-up the phone

Yes, you may still be wearing pyjamas at 2pm. You may be ‘working’ with the dog on your lap and Sonos at full volume. And you may be demonstrating extraordinary multi-tasking skills while on the job (that’s a euphemism!). But please remember that the easiest way to connect with someone is a chat. Ideally via video link. And however bad the virus epidemic becomes, you won’t catch it via a handset. Great communication oozes empathy. Which is typically a hell of a lot quicker to establish on the phone than within message 78 of 97 in an ever-growing work-from-home email inbox!

Want some help?

At a time like this, I’m very aware that there’s nothing quite as irritating as a sales pitch clothed as helpful advice. However, it would be negligent of me not to mention that we are currently helping clients across the world with scripts for video messages, e-town halls, emails and articles. Alys is also giving some brilliant one-to-one training on delivery via skype. Please call us any time on +44 (0) 207 118 1600 if you like us to take the comms off your hands while you get stuck into Succession Series 2.

PAA. (Please Avoid Acronyms)


“Excuse me, sir. Seeing as how the V.P. is such a V.I.P., shouldn’t we keep the P.C. on the Q.T.? ‘Cause of the leaks to the V.C. he could end up M.I.A., and then we’d all be put out in K.P.”

In ‘Good Morning Vietnam‘, Robin Williams’ character, Adrian Cronauer, made the troops laugh by highlighting everything he saw as ridiculous in and around the military. Unsurprisingly, the heavy use of the acronym made a pretty easy target.

In ‘A Suitable Boy‘, Vikram Seth took aim at the acronym in a gentler, but equally effective way:

‘I work with CLFC and I’m in Brahmpur for a few days on work’.
Haresh assumed that the abbreviations he often used were entirely familiar to everyone else.
‘CLFC?’ asked Pran.
‘Cawnpore Leather & Footwear Company’.
‘Oh, so you work in the shoe trade’ said Pran.

Institutionalised

In both examples, the joke is on the person delivering the acronym. It suggests they are institutionalised. Wrapped up in their own world. Talking in a language that will only mean something to those living inside the same bubble.

Yet in our professional lives, we tend to forget all this. Speeches, conversations, pitches and phone calls are littered with acronyms that are, at best, a way of saving a second or two, and at worst, baffling.

I have a number of clients in the transport industry. Understandably, when engineers and experts speak to each other, they use acronyms as a kind of shorthand, to get to the point quicker. Unfortunately, they often continue to do so when they are reporting to the Board, or speaking to customers. At which point, a confident listener asks them to explain what they mean. But all too often, we nod out of politeness, and walk away feeling confused.

Irrelevant

On one occasion, I was asked by a client to observe a finance committee meeting where heads of department would have 30 minute slots to put their case for funding to the board. In every case bar one, I struggled to understand the key benefit to the end-user as they attempted to make their cases using reams of technical detail, processes and acronyms. After a while I started to note down all the phrases and acronyms that were beyond me. In a review meeting with the Finance Director, I ran ten of them by her. She only understood four of the ten.

Great communication (be it via the spoken or written word) has to be relevant. That means addressing the audience or reader in ways that resonate. We often talk about ‘translating’ technical information into something clear and impactful. Using acronyms does the opposite. It suggests that you are not putting your audience first.

Rory Stewart explains what this means in a political context in this excellent interview with Nick Robinson:
https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p07873d3

Clarity

I passionately believe that it is our duty, as speakers and writers, to communicate in a way that is clear, straightforward and appropriate.

The acronym has a home – amongst groups of people who all understand what it stands for. Watching ‘Line of Duty’, one can only hope that every police officer understands what POLSA, OCG, TADA and SOCA mean. But were they used in a conversation with a member of the public, the vast majority of us would feel confused, excluded and, possibly, a little embarrassed. Which isn’t a great recipe for getting an important message across.

To get in touch…

Please call us any time on +44 (0) 207 118 1600 or send us an email at office@greatspeechwriting.co.uk and we would be delighted to help!

Martin Luther King. Oratory that was beyond a dream


It’s no secret that Martin Luther King spoke with masterful authority. Nor that he developed a commanding, sing-song oratorical style. Nor that his influences were drawn from the Southern Baptist tradition of his native Atlanta to the Ancient Greeks and Mahatma Gandhi.

From “the mighty mountains of New York” to “the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado” Dr King’s legacy demonstrates the value of powerful communication and great speech writing.

What, perhaps, is less well known, particularly here in the UK, was his breadth of causes and his rich rhetorical range.

King established himself not only as a champion for racial justice but a staunch advocate for peace in Vietnam, and an end to poverty through the redistribution of power and wealth.

As for his range, there is so much more to Martin Luther King’s speech giving than “I Have a Dream” on the steps of the Washington Memorial in 1963.

We selected his Dream as a contender for greatest ever speech. But here are some other great speeches given by a master – perhaps THE master – of the spoken word. We’ve given a brief introduction to each, selected some memorable phrases and linked to a video of the event.

“Our God is Marching On” – Martin Luther King, Selma, Alabama, March 25, 1965


Following the historic marches from Selma to Montgomery, many consider King’s “Our God is Marching On” speech to be the definitive speech of the first phase of the Civil Rights Movement. This stage was all about legal and political rights. The fight for economic equality would follow.

How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever.
How long? Not long, you shall reap what you sow.
How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice
.”

Repetitive call and response is a technique used a great deal in the Southern Baptist clergy. The final line here was borrowed from Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister born in 1810, who called for the abolition of slavery. 200 years later, the first African American President of the United would commission these words to be sown into a rug in the Oval Office.

Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, Martin Luther King Oslo, Norway. Delivered Dec. 10, 1964.


Age 35, King was at this point the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Listen for his trademark use of repetition and his characteristic knack for a visual metaphor:

We have mankind as “mere flotsam and jetsam on the river of life” while at the conclusion of this address the“starless midnight of racism and war” gives way to “the bright daybreak of peace”.

Civilisation and violence are antithetical concepts.
Nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation.
Sooner or later, all the peoples of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood.

I refuse to accept despair as a final response to the ambiguities of history. As
I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him.
And I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.

Beyond Vietnam – A Time to Break Silence, Riverside Church, New York. Martin Luther King Delivered April 4, 1967


King courageously called for an end to the War in Vietnam and spoke truth to power. He demonstrated the great rhetorical trick of asking a question to point your audience to your desired conclusion.

It’s a brilliant speech, whose relevance was demonstrated when quoted in the House of Commons in January 2019 by MP David Lammy: “There comes a time when silence in betrayal”.

I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.
For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.
Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.
This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response.

Shall we say the odds are too great?
Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard?
Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets?
Or will there be another message — of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost?

I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” Mason Temple, Memphis, Tennessee. Delivered April 3, 1968.


On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in support of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. The very next day, while standing on a balcony on the second floor of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, he was shot dead.

In hindsight, the message of hope he conveyed to those in attendance on the eve of his murder takes on a haunting quality. This speech shows him at the height of his rhetorical powers right until the end.

Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same: ‘We want to be free.’
Now, we are poor people.
Individually, we are poor when you compare us with white society in America. We are poor.

Never stop and forget that collectively — that means all of us together — collectively we are richer than all the nations of the world, with the exception of nine.
Did you ever think about that?
We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind.

To get in touch…

Please call us any time on +44 (0) 207 118 1600 or send us an email at office@greatspeechwriting.co.uk and we would be delighted to help!

Why we sound boring. And how to fix it!

Remember the teacher who ruined your favourite subject?  The professor whose lectures you always attended, but rarely made it through awake?  The after dinner speech creating raised eyebrows around your table?  They all fell into the trap of not questioning why we sound boring even when we have interesting things to say.

We’ve written much about the content required to keep an audience awake.  But what about the noise they hear?  The effect that sound has on our ability listen?

Avoiding the monotone

The biggest contributor to audience boredom is the monotone.  White noise that can flatten even the most inspiring topic into something insipid.  It’s characterised by a flat, repetitive vocal pitch with a complete lack of variation in tone.

When we listen, we are very simple creatures.  We latch onto a bit of vocal variation or colour. Or, as the experts term it, intonation.

For most of us, intonation is a natural instinct.  We intuitively alter the intonation of our voice, using low, mid and high tones, to help express to our listener exactly what we want to communicate. Particularly when we are relaxed.  We’ll describe an AMAZING match; the i-n-c-r-e-d-i-b-l-y s-l-o-w bus journey.

Inflection is an amazing tool that, when relaxed, we convey naturally and with complete and utter ease.  Socially, it’s how we guess the meaning of a word or phrase; how we judge mood and tone.  And it’s a crucial element in the chemistry between two people.

Try it!

Removing inflection removes our personality.  It’s why we sound boring.  Try saying “this is brilliant” without inflection.  It could mean anything.  Sarcasm. Excitement.  Irony.  It’s left to our audience to guess – if they are still awake!

Not only does lack of colour in your voice create confusion, it also suggests you don’t care – however untrue that may be.  It leaves an energy vacuum and, ultimately, a sense of complete and other boredom.

Imagine a piece of music with only one note (with the exception of this one!).  We are wired to enjoy a level of colour and energy in a voice.  Our ear bends to it, we become more engaged in the content.

When an advert comes on TV we are drawn to the pantomime inflection and the forced colour.  This is an extreme example of course, but it’s not a coincidence that an industry that makes its money persuading us to do things leans heavily on the art of inflection.

The problem is that we are most likely to revert to monotone at the worst possible moment; i.e. under pressure, in front of a large audience.

Pressure kills the voice

In our experience, clients who sound monotone in front of an audience sound completely different in private.  Pressure suffocates their voice.  And a nervous public speaker will typically be more inhibited that someone who exudes confidence.  It’s a problem that snowballs.

What to do

We can’t magic away the nerves, but there are some very simple tricks to create energy through inflection.

  1. Connect to your subject matter. If you’re not thinking about what you’re saying, you’ll sound disconnected and soulless. Think about it; believe it and you’ll find it much easier to deliver a line with thought and feeling!
  2. Think of your voice as an instrument. It needs to be tuned and warmed-up before you speak.  Your voice is like the rest of your body – it needs a stretch before being put to use!  Vocal exercises can bring you to life. Try humming from a low to a high note without pushing or straining.  Repeat up and down the scale.  You’ll immediately notice you have access to a much broader vocal range.
  3. Lastly, breathe! If you’re taking in enough breath to fuel a sentence then you’ll be able to use your voice in much more interesting ways. Lazy (nervous) breathing means we won’t have the ability to use emphasis, colour, find sentence flow, or project – so it’s generally best avoided if you want to make a good impression!

There’s so much more that can be done to help a flat, monotonous speaker become an engaging and dynamic one. The key is to help you speak under the spotlight as you when relaxed and engaged.

We can help

Alys would be delighted to work with you (discreetly) face-to-face or via face-time to put the colour into your voice!  We’re on +44 (0)207 118 1600.

How NOT to start your office party speech

These aren’t made up.  We’ve just changed some details to protect the innocent.  Each is taken from an office party speech we’ve been sent to review in years gone by. And we’ve suggested that they be removed for reasons that, we assume, don’t require further explanation.

  1. I know we are all here to enjoy ourselves but let’s start with the numbers.”
  2. It’s been a tough year for me personally.  As many of you know, my wife and I went our separate ways in March …”
  3. I’m going to speak now because I’m sure you’ll all be giggling loudly and snogging each other by eleven o’clock.”
  4. There are twelve days of Christmas, and I’m going to give you twelve suggestions for making this a more efficient and effective business next year.”
  5. So if I’m Santa, then you are my little helpers, and I’m going to thank you all in a very special way this evening.”
  6. Good evening everyone and welcome to (venue),  As you’ll see from this spreadsheet it’s been a mixed year”
  7. “Before I begin, you’ll notice that not all our team are with us tonight.  Unfortunately, we had a series of difficult meetings earlier and, as a result, we’re eight members of staff lighter.  I didn’t want to be worrying about that during the party, so decided to get it over and done with beforehand.”
  8. “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way, oh what fun it is to see, you all here today.”
  9. Associates, managers, partners, lend me your ears; I have come to bury 2016, not to praise it.”

So …

So many ideas.  All that creativity.  So much wasted time.

The annual office party speech isn’t about you, it’s about them.  It’s not about the numbers, it’s about having fun.  Like all great speeches it’s about brevity and levity; thanks and self-deprecation.  Never is it more important to keep it simple, brief and relaxed.  If you’ve bad news to share, do it beforehand.  If you want to be crude – don’t.  A great office party speech leaves your team feeling glad they are part of it and looking forward to the rest of the night.

This year’s speech …

If you’re giving an office party speech this Christmas we would love to help write or edit it and can do so at very short notice if required.  Please call us any time on +44 (0)207 118 1600.

Gareth Southgate – the great communicator

Gareth Southgate.  If you’re looking for insights into the origins of the waistcoat, or the development of the 3-5-2 I’m afraid we can’t oblige.  Because we want to focus on his outstanding communication skills.

Six weeks ago, you might have been surprised to read that an English football manager embodied many of the skills we encourage professionally.  Big Sam didn’t set the highest benchmark.  But even the most dispassionate observer of Southgate at his news conferences and interviews during the World Cup can’t help but have been impressed.  Why?

Modesty

So many public speakers – particularly in the world of sport – seem able to speak only about themselves.  In enormous detail.  Ask a professional golfer about his game and you will receive an endless stream of self-analysis – often technical.  Gareth Southgate understands that it’s not about him.  He is just a conduit through which we can understand and support his team.  As a result, he speaks about them with respect and admiration.  This means that when he does gives insights into his own life (disappearing into the Yorkshire moors after the tournament, or the thrill of winning a penalty shootout as manager), we want to listen.

Self-deprecation

Having missed the penalty that previously defined him in 1996, Southgate starred in a pizza ad with a paper bag over his face.  Some criticised him, others saw a man clearly able to laugh at himself.  In recent weeks he has used self-deprecating humour to win over the press and a multitude of fans.  Take the game against Belgium where he was asked about the team deliberately seeking yellow cards to ensure that they finished behind Belgium in the group.  He answered by suggesting “if I go and headbutt Roberto (Martinez) in the last five minutes then you’ll know we’re taking a different approach to getting through!”  Tension diffused.  Awkward answer avoided.

Pausing

Watch almost any clip of Gareth Southgate answering a question and you’ll have to wait a moment for an answer.  You might notice a slight frown.  He’s thinking.  It might sound obvious, but listen to so many other high profile people speaking under pressure and they rush straight in.  Whether you are sitting in an interview or standing up to present, that pause allows you to gather your thoughts, put your head before your heart, and avoid silly mistakes.

True to himself

Southgate is a good guy.  But so are many public figures.  Where he’s different is he never tries to be something he’s not.  There’s no bravado.  No desperate (and over-planned) attempts to place pre-written jokes as is now the norm at Prime Minister’s Question Time. No hype.  I read his joint-autobiography many years ago (Woody and Nord – worth a look!) and was delighted to see such a sensible, thoughtful ex-footballer writing candidly and sensibly.  He may now be England manager but he’s still candid, sensible and thoughtful.  From a communications perspective he is constantly living up to his billing as someone speaking at the top of their own game.

Body Language

Appropriate.  There are no histrionics (as you would expect), but nor does he lack performance energy.  Southgate looks his audience in the eye.  He uses his arms to emphasise key points.  His smile may never launch a thousand ships, but it suggests that he is enjoying life and not suffocated by pressure.  It is incredible how often the most brilliant people hide behind a stern face when public speaking.  Not Gareth.

Sense of perspective

It’s rare that (tragedy on or off the pitch notwithstanding) a football manager is accused of looking at the bigger picture.  By highlighting the contrast between England’s footballers and the political mess back at home, highlighting the ambassadorial role of his players and constantly referencing the supporters and the efforts they made, Southgate demonstrated that although results matter, there is more to life.

Room for Improvement

Gareth Southgate is an ‘ermmmmer’.  This is a trap into which so many of us fall – be it on the phone, chatting face-to-face or presenting in public.  ‘Erming’ becomes habitual.  And it is contagious – particularly in the football world.  Listen to Harry Kane who links almost every sentence with a good couple of seconds of white noise.  ‘Erming’ can easily be replaced.  By silence.  We have clients who have agreed to put 50p in a charity box every time they hear themselves ‘erm’.  Within three days they are cured.  If Gareth could pause for thought while remaining silent, there wouldn’t be much left to work on.

To get in touch…

Please call us any time on +44 (0) 207 118 1600 or send us an email at office@greatspeechwriting.co.uk and we would be delighted to help!

Why Kevin Pietersen bowled us over with this speech …

Oprah Winfrey, Hilary Benn, Michelle and Barak Obama and Sir Ken Robinson.  We have quoted them all recently on the back of truly great speech writing (and delivery). And one name we hadn’t intended to add to the list was Kevin Pietersen.  His name has typically been associated with flamboyant batting, flamboyant hair cuts and what may euphemistically be referred to as flamboyant team-building skills.

The background wasn’t auspicious.  Pietersen was asked to deliver 6th Mak Pataudi Memorial Lecture.  This was clearly a big deal.  The Times of India led with a piece slating the BCCI’s choice of speaker – the first overseas player to have been asked to give this high-profile lecture.

Pietersen must have seen this as a challenge and proceeded to give the speech to a room full of the good and the great of cricket on the sub-continent. It was also broadcast widely across India. So one assumes Pietersen began under pressure.  And then there’s his experience as a public speaker which, according to Google, was about 47 less than his test average.

But then we watched it.  What a speech!

You can view it here

Speech writing may be considered more of an art than a science, but we have developed a formula to measure impact:

  1. Did it begin with a compelling hook (no pun intended)?
  2. Was the key message clear and memorable?
  3. Was there a theme holding it together?
  4. Did it strike the right balance between humour and sincerity?
  5. And sound like the speaker at the top of his game?
  6. Did key soundbites make it onto social media?
  7. Was it delivered well?

How did Kevin Pietersen do?

Pietersen nailed it on almost every level.  He approached the pre-lecture controversy head on – and with a self-deprecating joke.  TICK.  He ensured relevance by directly addressing some of the Afghan cricketers in the room.  He also used their presence (and their maiden test match against India) as a theme to create an ongoing narrative.

The key message was clear and given the right amount of weight.  And it can be summed-up in a single sentence (TICK): “test cricket is the purest and most challenging form of the game and we should nurture it”.

The tone is serious and inspiring, but with a couple of jokes (at Pietersen’s own expense rather than his audience).  TICK.

The overall result is engaging, interesting, passionate, and, on the whole, well delivered – at a pace of approximately 120 words per minute. It flows seamlessly, avoids listing too many details (often a cricketers’ biggest weakness).  In cricketing terms, he played himself in, engaged the crowd and really got onto the front foot later in his innings. Without ever looking like giving his wicket away.  TICKS all round.

Social media is full of soundbites from the speech that highlight the key message.  For example: “Caps and trousers stained with sweat, grass and sometimes even blood in the white heat of a Test match. It’s something I believe in – passionately.”

His delivery is considered and well paced.  There is room for improvement, but he brings the text to life.

Kevin Pietersen reached great heights as a batsman – and it looks like he’ll do the same as a public speaker.

The speech

Here’s the full script – with thanks to the BCCI website and Kevin Pietersen

Office bearers, Members of the BCCI, fellow cricketers, Administrators
Ladies and Gentlemen.

It is a huge honour to be standing here for so many reasons. To be in India, a country that has become a home from home over the year thanks to the friends I have made here. And my instant empathy with the people whose passion for and knowledge of our wonderful game of cricket is unparalleled.

Which reminds me of the reaction to my selection for my first test match in 2005!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Because we are here, of course, to remember the great Tiger Pataudi. What a cricketer! And, even more importantly what a man! A man whose passion, leadership and love of the game have crossed borders time zones and oceans.

I heard about him back in Durban in darker times.
And I heard about him in England where, above all, he was renowned as a man who believed in fulfilling cricket’s potential to entertain. Which is why he has always been a hero of mine as we clearly shared an approach and a philosophy towards this great game.

Although I’m not sure I would have felt quite as confident marching down the wicket in a test match with the use of only a single eye. I suggest that we should double his average to get a feel for how this man’s talent would have played out with double the vision.

And I propose that as a man who understood this game’s power to unite and spread joy he would share my enormous sense of excitement and optimism in addressing these words to one particular group of people in this room.

Yes, eleven of you. Eleven young men who, in less than two days will walk into the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru chosen to represent your country in its first ever Test Match.

There are many others infinitely better qualified to describe the social, political and cultural impact of that sporting leap. But I know what it means as a sportsman. Because, in my humble opinion a hard fought five-day test match remains the greatest all-round challenge in modern day sport.
A challenge as mentally demanding as it is physical. A challenge demanding the very highest levels of concentration of technique, of determination, of stamina, all, for the batsman at least, with no second chances.

Because, having played every form of cricket in every corner of the cricketing globe, I remain 100% convinced that the five-day test remains the supreme form of the game.

This may surprise some of you. After all, I am not known as a traditionalist. But in 2005 I maintained that you shouldn’t judge a man by his haircut. And now, thirteen years later, I suggest you should NOT believe everything you read on Twitter!

Nor, I should add, am I anything but unstinting in my praise of 20-20 cricket – particularly the wonderful IPL. 20-20 provides the thrill, the noise, the speed and no little genius. It has taken fielding to a new level and has redefined batting.

But it offers the cricketing buzz without the full sting. Wickets are less precious. Risks are taken without the same downside. There is less character and technique required.

Few players have ever been met with the wrath of an entire population simply for getting out to an injudicious shot early in a 20-20 innings!

To explain why the longer form of the game means so much to me let me take you back to Durban in the early 1980s.

Shimmering heat. A baked pitch and a beige outfield. Concrete slabs on which I sat transfixed watching provincial cricket of a phenomenal standard.

Intensity, bravery, application, skill, relentless competitiveness. It wasn’t even Test cricket but in those days it was the closest we got.

Day after day I watched. Glued. Transfixed. These cricketing Gods demonstrating everything that is great about cricket. And at the heart of the action was a man who remains my hero.

Clive Rice. Ricey. Fearless, graceful and, at times, savage at the crease. Instilling in me the enormity of character required for the first class game. Many years later when it was clear that I would be lucky enough to make a career out of the game I love my Dad told me precisely when he knew I would succeed. It wasn’t a particular shot, a special innings or the long hours of practise. It was those lengthy summer days sitting motionless on those scorching concrete slabs absorbing everythingin the Durban heat.

Come to think of it I may have missed my vocation it was actually the perfect preparation for becoming a scorer!

I know I am not the only one here to have been inspired to work harder to practise longer by watching our heroes in white flannels.

Fast forward a few years. To the exciting period following South Africa’s re integration into test cricket. The duel between Atherton and Donald. The bowler giving everything. The batsman never backing away.

Gladitorial. No white flag.

No referee’s whistle to stop it. Time stood still. Epic in every way partly down to the technical excellence on show but also down to the character that only test cricket can reveal in full.

Sachin Tendulkar.
Shane Warne.
Malcolm Marshall.
Steve Waugh.
Richard Hadlee.
Kapil Dev

Even the late, great – but flawed – Hanse Cronje.Each played his fair share of one-day matches. But when we look back on their extraordinary achievements their peformances that will always stand the test of time are those when they were dressed in white.

Caps and trousers stained with sweat, grass and sometimes even blood in the white heat of a test match.

Trust me, there is no feeling like the exhaustion, the excitement, the sense of wonder at waking up on the final day of a test match knowing that any result is possible.
The aching thighs. The mental fatigue. The fear. And the possibility that this will be THE Day.

So let me ask a few questions. Please relax – I won’t pick on any of you! I’ll even try to answer them myself! Firstly, to the Afghanistani test team.

What does it take to succeed in a test match?

What makes it different from the other forms of the game in which you have already excelled?

For me, it’s the ability to take your lessons from the nets into the heat of battle.

It’s the determination to prepare, practise and give 100% commitment to everything away from the game. I appreciate that’s quite lot to ask for before Thursday! But I know some of you personally and you have been demonstrating those qualities and that application for a long time now.

My second question that I ask on behalf of every cricket fan and every player who has experienced the extraordinay highs and lows of test cricket is this:

What will it take to keep this form of the game alive?

How can we ensure that for our children’s children ‘cricket’ will not simply be a game that takes forty overs – or less – after work?Well, I’m afraid that the answer to that isn’t in the hands of cricketers at all. It’s in a word that makes many shudder.

‘Commerce’.

We may dream that cricketers will choose to play five-day cricket because of its history and tradition. Because it develops character. And because we seek to emulate the feats of Bradman, Hutton and Gavaskar.But that would be no different to asking a Bollywood star to give up the screen for work in the theatre. It may be a more classical form of acting but it offers a fraction of the rewards.

If we wish cricketers to commit to five-day cricket we have to pay them. And as an ex-cricketer, I can now say this without being accused of self-interest! For once!

So how do we pay them? Simply by throwing the same commercial nouse and innovation at the test game. Five days of action. They provide so many opportunities. Day night games have demonstrated the enormous leaps that are possible. The IPL doen’t play its biggest fixtures when many of its staunchest, wealthiest fans are at work. Neither should test cricket.

It will only be by pushing the marketing dial to a maximum that we will see if the test game has true potential. Let’s make every game count. Push the profile of the world test championship. Develop marketing opportunities. Offer cheaper seats in the ground to provide a better spectacle for TV viewers. Is there a game anywhere quite like test cricket in which so many people are passionate depite rarely attending a game in person?

We need to get them back through the turnstiles. It’s better for the players the sponsors and television.

Let’s get the fans back!

Let’s throw equal marketing clout behind the Test game before we succumb to the lazy assumption that 20-20 rules.To those who hear this and remain cynical. Who question the entertainment value of Tests. Who believe that I am wistful about something that will soon be associated with black and white television fax machines and telegrams.

I say, let’s create a fair comparison. Let’s not compromise entertainment. Let’s put the test fans first. Let’s make test cricket a spectacle. Garnish it with colour and fireworks. Fill the grounds. Play in the evenings. Give the umpires microphones to broadcast to the spectators. Allow sledging – as long as it remains the right side of the line. Communicate better with the fans.

Give the players a voice during play. Entertainment isn’t just about hitting the ball hard or bowling bouncers. It’s about creating an experience.For the people who matter most of all: Those who pay to watch cricket. Let’s not kid ourselves. Without them, there would be no professional game at all.

But the players must play their part. And to every player thinking of sacrificing a career with the red ball to play white ball cricket, I plead with you to think again. Don’t sacrifice the opportunity to really challenge yourself.

Don’t restrict yourself to a form of cricket that, however brilliant, doesn’t require mastery of every skill. Only Test cricket can do that. Ask Jos Buttler who scored so prolifically here at the IPL before his recall to the English test team whether he valued any of those stunning 20-20 knocks for Rajustan Royals as highly as the man of the match in the second test match v Pakistan last month at Headingly.

I suggest that he will have felt a sense of pride achievement cammeraderie and fatigue that only Test Cricket can produce.

As for the administrators wondering what the players really think. How do you ensure that Rashid Kahn and his fellow stars in this room commit to test cricket?
How do you push them towards a career where they truly care about the five-day game?

Where they don’t just pay lip service to the national test side but dream of test cricket and strive to master it?

Well, I’m not so long in the tooth that I’ve forgotten the answer to that one!

It’s remarkably simple. Ensure that it becomes their priority. They are professionals. They are brands in their own right. And as this incredible Afghanistan team proves great players can move mountains – and inspire populations.So ensure that they are paid as well over five days as they are over five hours of 20-20 cricket. You can’t blame a player for seeking financial security through his or her sporting talent.The days of amateurism are gone.

Let’s not kid ourselves that players will choose a classical art form over something requiring less effort that attracts greater rewards. When the greatest players can attract the greatest income by playing the greatest form of the game then we will see nothing less than a renaissance in test cicket.

It’s something I believe – passionately. But a retired cricketer has to broaden his or her horizons. We cannot live in the bubble forever. And in retirement, I have found a new challenge and one that requires an almighty effort from as many of us as possible.

When I started talking about savng the rhinos there were many in the game who wondered if I was focused on helping the Mid West Rhinos cricket franchise in Zimbabwe!

I am, of course, dedicated to an incredible beast that should be able to call Africa and India home.

In fact, it is hunted relentlessly and remorselessly. Its horns may provide short-term riches but its potential extinction risks us losing something incredibly precious.

Which is a tragedy in its own right but which also acts as a metaphor for the future of test cricket. And it is no secret that I care fervently about the survival and the resurgence of both.

But today is about cricket. And I am sure you will all excuse me if I save my closing words for the test players of Afghanistan.

The squad, the management, and all those who helped you get here. You guys are sitting on the very edge of history. The doom mongers say this is a dying form of the game, but you have it within your grasp to keep it alive. You are representing a population of 36 million people.

Your country has scaled the ladder across the shorter forms of the game but this is bigger and better. And I have every faith that at some stage during the game one of you will lift your bat – or the ball – up high. Not just to acknowledge the applause for your personal achievement but, more significantly, to pinpoint that moment when all your hard work, the sacrifices you have made and the expectations of others that you have carried on your shoulders have borne fruit.

At that moment, you will feel a surge of adrenaline, a moment that trumps anything I have experieced in life because you know how difficult it is how unlikely it was and, uniquely in your case, you will not only have suceeded as a test cricketer but you will have done so as a pioneer.

Someone who brought your nation into the test match arena in which our heroes have been competing for one hundred and fifty years and made your own piece of history.

The headline writers around the globe are waiting! You are changing the perception of your country that has been in the news for the wrong reasons for far too long.

Far from test cricket dying, you are creating a new beginning. And my dearest hope is that the administrators of cricket around the world can do everything within their power to harness that momentum across India, the sub-continent and beyond.

And last – but most definitely, not least when you are at the crease. When you have played yourselves in. When you decide to take the attack to the bowlers.

Commit yourselves fully. Not just to attack. But to entertain. Play in the spirit of the great Tiger Pataudi. And if you take his values onto the square then whatever you achieve in this game and wherever it takes you, you will never regret a moment of it.

We’re here to help

If you’ve got a daunting public-speaking engagement coming-up, please don’t hesitate to call.  We can help you write great content and deliver it with real impact.  We can’t help you bat like an international cricketer, but we can ensure that your speech is up there with the very best!

Reach us on any time on +44 (0) 207 118 1600 or send us an email at office@greatspeechwriting.co.uk and we would be delighted to help!

Best Tips 4: Improving your public speaking skills.

So here’s the challenge: You have an important speech in the diary.  A conference speech perhaps?  Or a big pitch?  It’s the ultimate test of your public speaking skills.

Where to begin?

Well, as early as possible. The most important ingredient of any speech is preparation. And the first place to prepare is to think about your audience. So many speeches are ruined by experts listing their extensive knowledge on a subject.  It’s the public speaking equivalent of bad breath on a first date.

So let’s start by striving to be relevant. Who will be listening?  What do you want them to remember?  What do you want them to DO as a result?  How much information will they be able to absorb?  Can you get them into a position where they are desperate to know more?

How to plan

With your goals clearly in place, it’s time to start writing. But not in long sentences.  Start with a framework.  A plan.  A series of sub-headings that link naturally into a shape that takes your audience from where they ARE to where you want them to BE.

Test the structure by reading those headings out loud and linking one to the next naturally and seamlessly. Note down those links and ensure you don’t forget them.  You now have a persuasive argument in place rather than an unrelated series of ‘points’.

This process will ensure that you prioritise key messages, and get what really matters to the top. Remember that your audience will often be more excited by ‘benefits’ created by your subject than the subject itself.

Writing

Your script now becomes a form of joining the dots. You have a structure that links the speech together.  You simply have to pick the most relevant pieces of knowledge and weave them into the story.

Try to begin with some sort of hook. Something that will grab the attention because it is interesting, memorable and possibly funny.  Then follow these guidelines:

  1. Keep your sentences short.
  2. If a sentence covers more than a line, split it into separate sound-bites …
    … using dots to remind you to pause.
  3. Read passages out loud and underline words that will require particular emphasis to bring them to life
  4. Keep tabs on the total length. If you speak at 120 words per minute and your time limit is 20 minutes, a brilliant 4,000 word speech will end up rushed and not so brilliant after all.
  5. Ensure that your words are simple. It’s hard enough to hold an audience’s attention without bamboozling them with jargon.

Check it

You don’t need to ‘proof’ a speech. Nobody will know (or care) if your script has a couple of typos.  Your job is to sense check it.  To ensure that you have ‘translated’ your technical knowledge into something that they will understand and find completely engaging.  If it’s not easy to follow, don’t run with it.  However good your delivery, it’s impossible to hold an audience’s attention with dry, over-technical content

Practise it

So you’ve prepared your content. Now is the important part. The delivery. Speaking slowly,. Pausing.  Ensuring you make eye contact with your audience for at least 80% of the time.  Remaining animated.  Ensuring that your body language helps deliver your message.

If you can keep practising until your can finish your own sentences, then you’ll only ever need to glance at your script – and can give the impression of complete mastery of your content.

And if you really believe in what you’ve written, and can deliver it with energy and confidence, you will no longer worry about your public speaking skills.

On the day

Keep your script to hand. However confident you are, it’s better to have the safety net of a well prepared script.  Take a couple of deep breaths before you arrive at the podium.  Look at the room and smile before you start. And remember that your audience want to be entertained.  If you look like you are enjoying yourself, the chances are that they will too.

Outsource

It’s all very well suggesting what you should do, but we’d much rather do it for you! We write for (and coach) the rich, the famous, the needy, the worthy, the busy and the lazy.  Please let us know if you qualify for some help taking your public speaking skills to the next level!

To get in touch…

Please call us any time on +44 (0) 207 118 1600 or send us an email at office@greatspeechwriting.co.uk and we would be delighted to help!

Best Tips 3: How to keep a business speech simple

Regular readers of this blog may recall our previously using Ed Miliband to demonstrate how things can be done better.  Particularly why it’s worth using notes to ensure you don’t forget something crucial.  So it is with some pleasure that we can now hold him up as a paragon of great communication, particularly in his adherence to a single word we hold so dear: Simplicity.

Ed’s podcast ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’ is a wonderfully refreshing exercise in the translation of complicated economic and political issues into something accessible and straightforward.  One recent episode, on ‘economics’ didn’t just give a really clear insight into the issues, it also revealed the ways that language has been used to deliberately obfuscate.

By inviting guests to discuss ‘complex’ subjects in simple terms, Ed and his co-host Geoff Lloyd create instant impact.  It’s easy to engage with them, and almost impossible to get confused or distracted by the detail.

OK, it’s a podcast.  And it revels in it’s homely atmosphere.  But we all know that there are many people in the world of business (and politics) who take the opposite approach.  Sometimes it’s deliberate.  Typically it’s because they know much too much about their chosen subject and can’t help it spilling it all out in an impenetrable torrent of lists and details.

What not to do

To keep your business speech simple please DON’T:

  1. Start by explaining that there are “37 things I’d like to tell you today
  2. Lead by focusing on the key features of your product or service
  3. Use words or acronyms that only a colleague or fellow-expert will understand
  4. Quote long passages from other sources
  5. ‘Illustrate’ your speech with bullet points and fancy diagrams that need long explanations
  6. Fill time because you feel it’s necessary

Four ways to keep your business speech simple

  1. Start by thinking about your audience.  Keep them in mind from the very start.  And ask yourself every step along the way whether they will ‘get it’.
  2. Focus on the key benefit you are able to provide:
    • The printing press made literature available to the masses.  That’s simpler than starting by explaining how the screw press allowed direct pressure to be applied on flat-plane.
    • Commercial aircraft enabled tourists to visit new places.  That’s a benefit explaining the concept more clearly than the Air Commerce Act of 1926.
    • The mobile phone allowed us to be more flexible and speak on the go.  The way radio frequency establishes a connection to the switching systems of a mobile phone operator via a PSTN is fascinating to some, but not benefit-driven.
  3. Work out a single message you want each member of the audience to remember the following day.  Build your speech around it.
  4. Ask a friend who knows nothing about your business to listen to the speech.  Ask them to interrupt every time they lose focus or don’t understand.  Then rewrite it.

The fifth way

Just call a business built around the concept of making a business speech simple!  Or any speech for that matter.  Or presentation or written communication.  We can take it off your hands or train you and your team to do it in-house.  Just let us know.  We’ll do our best to give you another reason to be cheerful!

To get in touch…

Please call us any time on +44 (0) 207 118 1600 or send us an email at office@greatspeechwriting.co.uk and we would be delighted to help!

Best tips 2: how and why to pause when speaking in public

What a difference …

… a pause makes!

We are paid to write words.  But what makes a great script work brilliantly, are the silences between them.

Silence creates rhythm.  It creates suspense.  It’s like white space on a page; you just can’t help but be drawn-in by it.

Balance

Clearly, standing-up and remaining silent for ten minutes is pushing things too far!  On the other hand, that approach will create more impact than speaking at a furious pace of 200 words per minute without stopping for breath.  The key is the right balance.  Using the pause to get the very most from your content.

Make it easy for your audience

You are only giving a speech to convey a message. You might be explaining something.  Selling.  Motivating.  Persuading.  Or entertaining.  Either way, you are speaking so your audience can react.  To do that they need to go through a three stage process: Listen, digest, react.  The pause enables them to go through these stages seamlessly.  They have time to absorb your words.  To interpret and analyse.  And then to move forward.  That process requires time.  Time that you can create by remaining completely silent.

Great examples

Think Dame Tessa Jowell in the House of Lords.  Hillary Benn in the Syria debate.  Oprah on #MeToo.  Obama constantly.  Different speakers; different styles, but each with something in common:  the knowledge that a pause at the right time catapults mere words to the next level.  The pauses they take don’t read as a lack of confidence. They convey assuredness. They point to accomplished speakers who want to maximise impact.  Who value their words so much that they frame them with silence.  And when an audience sees the value you place on the words you’re saying, they tend to do the same.

Pace

Pacing is, in many ways, the most important aspect of your delivery. We suggest that you want to average about 120 words a minute. It’s a lot slower than we’d talk in general conversation, and it might take some getting used to. However it will benefit your reception endlessly. It will lend gravitas and impact to your words, in a way that a rushed, garbled delivery could never do.  Speaking quickly isn’t a problem in itself.  As long as you stop between soundbites – or sentences.

The Pause Complex

My bum looks big in this.”  No it doesn’t.  “My partner’s friends don’t like me” Yes they do.  “I can’t pause for that long it sounds stupid.”  Yes you can!  When it comes to the pauses, your best bet, is to overdo it. One of the few things people struggle with more than talking on stage, are the silent moments. When we coach clients to prepare for a speech we ask them to pause for as long as they feel comfortable. At first it’s a second or two but they feel that ten seconds have passed.  They jump to the next section to fill the gap. Having the confidence to extend the silences comes with practice and by watching great speakers. We recommend pausing until the point when it borders on feeling unnatural. Remember, time passes a lot slower for you than it does for your audience. So overcompensate.

Write-in your pauses

We always write our speeches in a format that aids delivery. As well as marking words that require emphasis, we also provide a visual marker (…) for pauses. And we think that with a little practice, the combination of these guidelines and our formatting can have you speaking with the impact of a Tessa, a Hillary or an Oprah …

… in no time at all!

Further help

We can edit your first draft of a speech to include pauses, write it for you from scratch, or coach you to deliver with more impact.  More in the Best Tips series to follow soon!

A year on – is Trump making communication great again?

At Great Speech Writing we are, of course, politically neutral. However, it will not surprise our regular followers that the majority of our clients share a number of opinions about the President of the United States, few of which involve him making communication great again.  Or anything for that matter.  The majority view veers between dislike and bafflement.

So let’s assume you don’t like him, didn’t vote for him and think there is something a little odd about the whole thing.
However, it’s impossible not to give the man some credit. He made billions in business, he fronted a prime time TV show and he was elected President in his first foray into politics. We are more than happy to credit him with the mastery of some crucial communication skills.

In fact, we’d go as far as to say that there are five areas in which any communicator could learn from Trump.

The Hook

A great communicator draws us in. We want to hear more. We are hooked.

The ‘hook’ can be a story, a joke, a question, a statistic or anything that makes us tune in.  Trump has mastered it. He’s asked us to let him ‘Make America Great Again’ and challenged us ‘Why not think big?’ He has taken diplomacy to brand new levels of subtlety by pointing out to the Supreme Leader of North Korea that “My red button’s bigger than yours”.

Whether he’s speaking or tweeting, he gets our attention. ‘Fake News’ is a prime example that has transformed voters’ trust of mainstream media.  In language that defines our age, he creates Presidential click bait. We may not agree, but we can’t ignore it.

Donald Trump is master of the Hook. And there are many executives around the World, whose conference speeches start by running through their agenda before explaining how many offices they run and staff they employ who could learn a thing or two from him.

Simplicity

I’ve never heard anyone complain at the end of a speech that they found it too easy to understand. On the flip side, we’ve all had moments where we knew a few seconds in that we would find what was to follow incredibly hard going.

We regularly talk about great speakers ‘translating’ complicated concepts into language that appeals to their audience. They keep it simple.  Trump has created an ‘everyman’ language that deliberately distances himself from the grander oratory of his predecessor.

He links complicated issues to simple soundbites.  ‘International trade’ becomes ‘deal making’ at which he is a self-proclaimed genius.  He links individuals to policies.  By bigging-up an ally or destroying a foe, he manages to polarise ‘their’ policy by osmosis.

Perhaps his greatest skill is to simplify ambiguity.  We can’t always be sure what he means, but are distracted by the simple way he says it.

His predecessor may have taken oratory to new levels, but Trump has mastered a different form of communication. It’s simple. And it works.

Audience participation

We live in an age of interaction. From reality TV to chat forums and Twitter, we have become used to answering back.

In that context, we don’t just want a speaker to lecture us. We want to be entertained. To be inspired.

Trump goes a step further and involves his audience. He asks questions,  responds to hecklers and creates a dialogue. He may not take oratory to new heights of sophistication, but his supporters love him for his ability to make them feel part of the show.

Suspense

We’ve noted how Trump hooks us in. But he goes further by appealing to our curiosity. He drops in teasers. Asks questions. Creates an element of suspense.  See his:

– Refusal to confirm whether he would accept the election result

– Teaser’s about his ‘Fake New Awards’ a week or so prior.

– Hints that theUS may yet rejoin Paris Clamate agreement: “We’ll see, we’ll see“.

Speaking off the cuff

Perhaps Trump’s real genius is in his ability to appear to be communicating in a series of ad libs. It’s possible he really doesn’t know what he’s going to say next. My guess is that there’s more planning behind the soundbites than it may appear.
Trump has, of course, benefitted from an apparent reaction against the over-polished, highly spun political class, living in an impenetrable bubble and far removed from ‘real’ life. And he has played the anti-spin card to a tee. He tells it as it is. His sentences are raw and ungrammatical. He may speak from instinct. He may speak from the heart (wherever that may be). Either way, he appears to care.

Is Trump making communication great again?

If we’re going to be candid, we do prefer listening to (and writing) speeches that are beautifully constructed, thoughtful and intelligent.  But then we’re hardly Trump’s target audience.  And whether or not we agree with him, we can all learn from him because he is nothing if not relevant.  Which is, of course, the key to pretty much everything in the crowded world of communications.

If you’d like some help ensuring that you maximise your impact on your intended audience (whether you are writing or speaking), we’re always here to help!

Email lawrence@greatspeechwriting.com or email us on +44 (0)207 118 1600!

Best tips 1: how to write a successful business speech

How to write a successful business speech?  It’s extraordinary how many brilliant business people don’t get it right.  And how simple it is to write something really compelling.

Whether the business speech is at an external conference, an internal meeting or a big pitch, there is a tendency for the speaker to:

  1. Begin slowly and safely (running through numbers, listing the agenda)
  2. Structure the speech around a series of ‘key points’ they wish to make (often rising well into double figures!)
  3. Carry on for too long
  4. Use phrases like “Another crucial point is …”
  5. Leave the audience wondering quite what they were meant to focus on or remember.

Getting it right is so simple and satisfying.  Here are three tips to ensure you write a successful business speech:

Relevance

Your main problem is that you know too much about your subject.  More than any member of your audience will ever need to digest.  So don’t start by listing all the things you need to say. Ask yourself a crucial question:

If there was one thing the audience could remember the following day, what would it be?

That tip alone has transformed the way a number of our clients think about their speeches.

Then put yourself in their shoes.  What matters to them?  What will hook them in?  What’s worrying them?  What will inspire?  How can you use that understanding to ensure your key message will be heard and remembered?

That’s relevance in a  nutshell.  Switching the ‘features’ of your subject into ‘benefits’ that will be impossible for your audience to ignore.

So don’t fall into the trap of writing a speech structured around ‘who we are’, ‘what we do‘ and ‘where we’re based‘.

Switch it into “I know what you want to hear” or “I know what’s worrying you” or “If there’s one thing I’d love you to take away from this …”

Originality

Relevance alone isn’t enough.  Particularly if your audience have heard it all before.  You also need to speak to them in a new way.

Originality is easy.  It means linking two different things together in a relevant way.  Or starting with a story that brings your message to life. You could tell a story or explode a myth.

A client of mine flew to South Africa to give a speech about technological change in her industry.  She approached it by talking her audience through her journey, illustrating it with how technology had effected each stage, from booking her ticket to choosing her accommodation.  It allowed her to keep it light and self-deprecating, making serious points as ‘evidence’ in an argument rather than just listing them.  She received the only standing ovation of the event.

Another client working in property told the story of an octogenarian living in a managed London apartment who shot pigeons with an air-gun from her bedroom window.  Original, true and the audience literally couldn’t wait to hear what was going to come next!

Brevity

Why would you want to speak for an hour if you can get your key message across in fifteen minutes.? There is ample proof that audiences begin to lose concentration somewhere between eight and ten minutes in.  It’s no coincidence that TED talks are limited to 18.

Put yourself in your audience’s shoes.  How many times have you sat down to listen to a senior executive giving a speech and wished they’d wrapped things up in half the time?  Ever felt your mind wandering or started subtly checking emails? There’s just no excuse for wasting anyone’s time simply for the sake of filling a slot.  Better to leave them inspired and wanting more.

Because there is nothing worse than a speaker who takes two minutes to introduce himself and then uses long, winding sentences like this one to make a point that could have been made much more clearly in far less time and using far fewer words.

Brevity’s not just about speaking for less time, it’s about using shorter, punchier sentences.

Like this.

With time to pause.

To collect your thoughts.

And to really EMPHASISE key words.

If you have a long, technical passage …

… split it up like this …

… allowing the dots to give your audience time to absorb what you said last.

Try to avoid convoluted ways of explaining something simple.  For example:

“The problem with playing three centre forwards is that each forward is based in the attacking third of the pitch which can leave a massive gap in midfield to be filled by less players, meaning that the defence gets pulled out of shape.”

Could be changed to:

“Selecting three forwards can leave holes behind them in midfield …

… that defenders are forced to cover.”

Finally, remember this sad truth:

A day after you have spoken, few of your audience will remember your key message, fewer still will have remembered your second message, and only a handful will remember more than one example you highlighted.

So see if you can compact a twenty minute speech into fifteen, and don’t worry about being too brief.

Contact

If you’d like some help writing a successful business speech, please give us a call.  We’ll keep it relevant, brief and we’ll do our very best to be original!

Thanks for reading.

How we can learn from Oprah Winfrey’s speech and #metoo

As you know by now, Oprah Winfrey, the ‘people’s’ first lady, took to the stage at the Golden Globes.

She stood up to collect the Cecil B Demille award.  Which officially made this an acceptance speech.

Acceptance speeches are often prime examples of how not to give a speech. Endless lists of thank yous to camera men and set designers we’ve never heard of. Poorly judged self praise. And that’s before the devil’s speech brew of hysterical laughter, tears and snot.

Oprah took a different route.  Her ten minute speech set alight the room, the press and the internet. The world has been gushing ever since.  Including Ivanka Trump. There’s even been talk of a presidential campaign bid.

We have previously come to bury acceptance speeches, not to praise them.  But this was stunning.  We regularly share simple ways to ensure speakers maximise the impact of their time on stage.  This one ticked every box: well thought out, meticulously prepared yet conversational. It sounded like a woman speaking with her heart, but thinking with her head. So let’s briefly dissect what made these ten minutes, so special.

Relevance

It’s always our number one rule.  You start by thinking about your audience.  What do they want to hear.  What will get them going.  How to avoid suffocating them with too much detail and self-indulgence?

A speech, especially one as personal as this, isn’t a one way street. It’s about interaction and she did it perfectly. It was obvious with all of the recent turbulence in the entertainment industry, that she would be dealing with tough subjects. But it’s how she did it that made it work so well.

The Hook

Instead of jumping right in at the deep end, she opens with a delicate story of a young girl watching Sidney Poitier become the first black man to receive an Oscar. It’s sincere, and at times upsetting but never too heavy. But what’s important is that it’s a brilliant story. We are hooked.  We want to hear more before her personal journey begins.

Energy

Her range is fantastic.  Ups and downs, never too abrupt but enough to create dynamic shifts. Designed to keep the audience tuned in. She’s emotional but never tearful, and it’s a full gamut of emotion. Joy, regret, frustration, hope. Too often, speakers define ‘energy’ as SHOUTING.  That’s clearly not going to work for more than a few seconds.  Oprah kept her audience awake, interested and involved.  Her words did even more.  They made us feel alive.  And thoughtful.  Simultaneously.

And then the speech grabbed the issues more directly.  She continued to test the room, building her energy along with that of the audience till she reached her final rousing crescendo. From a whisper to a shout, without any sense of disruption, and with the crowd hanging on her every word.

Relevance (again!)

You can’t be too relevant.  And relevance doesn’t just mean starting sentences with ‘you’ at the start of the speech.  It means maintaining and developing empathy.  Society is clouded by so many issues.  So how to keep this one meaningful?  Oprah did it through human faces.  Herself as the young girl with aspirations beyond the slums of Mississippi.  Rosa Parks.

Any time she had a point to make, she gave it a face. She reached out beyond the podium, beyond the camera and brought us all in closer.

Clarity

It was never in any doubt what Oprah was here to say. Her message was as clear as daylight. Nothing was rushed, nothing garbled and each word was granted significance by the space which it was allowed to reside in. She commanded the room with her stance, and with her words, but it’s the gusto and consideration with which they were delivered, that was the key to their success.

Simplicity and Impact

When we first sit down with a client to help write a speech, we ask how they want it to be remembered. What they want the audience to take away. When they wake up the next morning what will they remember?  Key lines. Big moments that condense and encapsulate as much of the overall message as possible. It’s hashtag logic.

The simplicity of #MeToo allows it to have universal meaning and has contributed to its success. And Oprah provided those takeaway lines; those central, pivotal moments so that no matter what happened at the Golden Globes after parties, there wouldn’t be anyone waking up on Sunday morning without her call to arms still ringing in their ears:

“We all have lived too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men. But their time is up. Their time is up!”

We can’t make everyone sound like Oprah  (or these guys) but we would love to help take your public speaking up to the next level.  Whether you have a speech looming or would like some coaching (for you or your team) please give us a call on +44 (0)207 118 1600.

Public Speaking: 12 (free) tips for Christmas!

‘Tis the season to be jolly.

Until the boss pipes-up to speak and throw a wet blanket over the entire office party.

Quarterly updates, business progress reports and corporate ‘to do’ lists all have their time and place in the public speaking calendar.  Just not at the annual office party.

This is the time of year when otherwise thoughtful, empathetic and inspiring business leaders inadvertently become irrelevant and dull.  Or, potentially, even worse, they attempt to be hilariously funny, demonstrating a worrying lack of self-awareness.  Which is such a waste.  Because the office party provides a wonderful opportunity to give a speech that really does make a difference.  It can do so by conforming to our twelve very simple public speaking tips.

For those who prefer watching to reading, here they are in technicolour:

For the readers, here’s how to be relevant, clear and really pretty special at your office party:

Preparation

Put your audience first: Tonight of all nights is the one to be generous.  You might be writing the speech on a cold Monday morning in early December, but you’ll give it at an event where your team are feeling upbeat and sociable.  Put yourself in their shoes and write something equally positive, charming and brief.

Key message: It’s hard to retain an audience’s attention ta the best of times.  Tonight is not the time for complex strategic thinking or detailed insights.  In our experience, you will be lucky if your team remember more than one thing about your speech the next day.  So make sure you decide what you want it to be.

Balance:  Too serious and you’ll be forgotten before you’ve finished your first minute.  Trying to be too funny and you risk them laughing at yu rather than with you.  It’s a very fine balance.  You need to know where you sit on that scale before you start writing.

Seamless:  Don’t allow yourself to be end up giving a list (be of awards, achievements or thank yous).  A great office party speech will link them all into what appears to be a seamless stream of consciousness.

Writing

Punch: It’s a party, so you need to sound even more punchy and energetic than normal.  So don’t write your speech in paragraphs.  Write it in short-sharp sound bites that link to create a narrative.  Ensure that you don’t waste  a word.

Pauses: Include regular pauses for breath while you are writing.  It’s a brilliant discipline to ensure that you give your colleagues a chance to listen.

Emphasis: Read your script out loud at the end of the sentence.  ‘hearing’ it will help you improve it.  It’ll also suggest words that will require particular emphasis.  They are usually adverbs and adjectives.

Length:  Again, put yourself in their shoes.  Forget what you want to say and have a think about what they’ll want to hear.  Less is more.  A decent pace for a speech is 120 words per minute.  Once you’ve finished your first draft you may find that you have quite a bit of editing on your hands!

Delivery

Pace: One of the worst offenders when it comes to public speaking.  Too fast and no one will absorb a word you say.  Too slow and you’ll sound inebriated. Get it right (that 120 words per minute

Eye Contact:  If you look at your audience and smile occasionally, your impact is instantly magnified.

Body Language:  An audience can’t help absorbing what you look like and what you are doing before they click into listening mode.  They’ll pick up on your embarrassment, your hesitancy and, hopefully, your confidence.  You can’t work on this stuff ‘live’ on the night.  It’s all about rehearsing to look like you at the very top of your game.

Using your script:  So many potentially great speeches have been ruined by speakers who forget their content, or who are clearly more worried about remembering what to say next than actually delivering it with impact.  There’s nothing wrong with holding some notes, as long as you interact with them in the right way. Glancing at them during your pauses, and holding them well away from your eye-line maximises your chances of getting it right, without acting as a barrier between you and your audience.

In Short

There really isn’t a huge difference between an office party speech and a speech at any dinner or social occasion.  Although the stakes tend to be a little higher – as you have to go and work with your audience the next day.  The key is to be relevant – to THEM. Your audience.  Your colleagues on the night.  Think about them from the very start, write for them and speak directly to them, and you’ll be on the right track.

And remember, this may be an office party post, but these public speaking tips aren’t just for Christmas.  They’re for life.  Now imagine saying that at the office party.  Squeamish looks all round.  And you’d delete it instantly.  See, it works!

Please do call us right up to the last minute if you’d like any help with your office party speech.

Email us on Lawrence@greatspeechwriting.com or call us on +44 (0)207 118 1600!

How Soviet propaganda can transform your presentation skills

The Tate Modern exhibition, ‘Red Star Over Russia’, features some incredible propaganda posters from the first half of the twentieth century. Behind them lay unimaginable terror. But the artwork is extraordinarily striking.

The Soviet poet, Vladamir Mayakovsky, suggested that a Soviet poster failed if it could not bring a running man to a halt. Which was why posters heavy with text created nothing like the same impact. Adolf Strakhov’s ‘Emancipated Woman Build Socialism!’ (pictured above and part of the David King Collection at the Tate) could bring a running tank to a halt, so clear its message, and powerful its impact.

So how is it, a century on, that sensible, ambitious and otherwise thoughtful business people are still giving presentations accompanied by slides like this?:

With that slide behind her, Judi Dench would struggle to keep your attention!

It never ceases to baffle me, how people work with Power Point.  All too often it gets used as an excuse to share endless bullet points that simply summarise a speaker’s script.  Don’t blame the software, but the way it is used to butcher entire presentations.

A great presentation should be all about the speaker and their message.  It should be relevant to the audience in the room on the day, stressing the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’.  And a great slide should complement it.  It should bring the key points to life through illustration.  And it’s so simple.  Say the ‘Legal Compliance’ speaker were to replace those yellow bullets with this:

The ‘why’ is immediately clear – ignoring legal compliance can bring shame on you and your business.  So sit up and listen.  This matters!

The picture grabs attention and makes the point itself more powerful.  And there’s an additional reason to listen to the speaker: her script is no longer on the screen in front of you.  So you can’t read it and then  lose attention!

This really isn’t rocket science.  The advertising industry has understood the value of visual impact for generations.  Imagine if this:

had been replaced with a slide containing the following bullets:

  • Black drink with white top
  • Guinness stout made from water, barley, roast malt extract,hops and brewer’s yeast
  • Taste developed by roasting the barley
  • Stock pasteurised and filtered
  • 198 calories per pint, equivalent to a light beer

In all likelihood, the beer tents at Cheltenham this coming March would be serving Mackeson Stout!

As someone paid to put words on a page, it pains me to say it, but less really is more.  And when it comes to slides, I’m a big fan of absolutely no words at all.  Ironically, there’s a hell of a lot your typical commercial business presentation could learn from those Bolsheviks!

lawrence@greatspeechwriting.com
+44 (0)207 118 1600

8 tips to transform your public speaking confidence

Warren Buffet.  The world’s most successful investor. A man who can stand up, start speaking and move markets.  When he talks the world listens.

So it’s something of a shock – and a relief  – to anyone who fears public speaking to hear that he was once a glossophobe too.  Glossophobia is a fear of public speaking.  A fear that comes second only to arachnophobia amongst Americans. Which means (and this is not my line) that your average American attending a funeral would rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy!

Back to Warren Buffet.  In his twenties, he realised that his phobia could hinder his career.  He enrolled in public speaking classes.  Such was his anxiety on his way to the first class, he dropped out.

Suffice to say that he did finally attack the problem at a Dale Carnegie course in 1951.  And I regularly use him as an example of everything that is good about communication.  He speaks simply, clearly and with passion.  He injects energy into a room.

Here are eight public speaking confidence tips that can help you join him in shedding the fear as you step up to the microphone.

1. You’re not alone

“There are only two types of speakers in the world: The nervous and the Liars.

Mark Twain had a point.  The vast majority of us (including professionals) worry about standing up to speak.  JFK was notoriously nervous and gripped his hands tightly together to hide the shakes.  Winston Churchill, Rowan Atkinson, Julia Roberts and Samuel L Jackson have all admitted to the speech jitters.

I regularly speak at conferences, off-sites and celebrations, and yet I still feel dry in the mouth and ever so slightly nauseous before the next event.  I didn’t relax on my own wedding day until after I’d spoken.  The key is to understand that what you are feeling is natural, and that it can be defeated.  Fear of public speaking is something you share with all sorts of people who have made their names doing it for a living.

2. Anything is possible

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

Let’s use Nelson Mandela to put things in perspective.   People have overcome much worse, and in our case the solutions are incredibly straightforward.  The nerves will never disappear altogether, but we can master them.  We just need to go into the process with an open mind and a willingness to confront our demons.

3. Prepare your content

There are all sorts of very well qualified speech coaches who will share practical advise with you.  Breathe deeply, get your body language right, do vocal exercises.  But these ignore a fundamental truth.  If your content is poor, you can never deliver it with confidence.  So don’t start worrying about delivery until you have a great speech (or presentation) to work with.  There are tips all over this site on how to develop great content, and I cannot emphasise enough how important this is.  We receive calls on a daily basis from speakers who declare themselves petrified and unable to imagine standing up to speak.  In the vast majority of those cases, with a really well written script to rehearse, they explain how the fear has shifted to nervous anticipation and then to something closer to excitement!

4. Visualise

Once you have a great speech (that you have written with the audience in mind) sit back and imagine their reaction.  Don’t think about yourself just yet.  Visualise their nodding in agreement, clapping at the right moments and smiling at the lighter touches.  Feel yourself relax.  This won’t stop the nerves in itself, but it will help you recognise that your script is relevant and original, and that all you need to do is say it!

5. Breathe

Nerves do funny things.  One of them is to encourage us to speak fast.  Much too fast.  120 words per minute is a good gauge for the right length of speech.  But under pressure that can zoom upwards along with our pulse rate!  The best way to slow down is to breathe.  Out and long.  Slowly.  I have developed a habit of breathing in as I am about to walk up to a podium, and then slowly exhaling as I get there.  It really does work.  Particularly if you practise in advance.  Professional golfers stepping up to putt under pressure swear by it  too.

6. Use your arms

You will still be nervous.  There’s no magical cure for that.  And the nervous energy needs to be released somehow.  If you stand perfectly still, your voice will bear the brunt and you might sound squeaky or coughy (think Iain Duncan Smith).  Even worse, you might start swaying while you speak- a common reaction to nerves that can leave your audience feeling mildly travel sick.  But if you can stand still with your feet planted, your arms can release energy.  Watch this video of David Cameron (remember him?!) with no sound.  Or this clip of Warren Buffet sitting down chatting to a live audience.  The arms are crucial – and make the speaker look completely at ease.  One word of warning – when you start trying this you will feel odd and completely aware of your arms.  Ask someone to video you and take a look to reassure yourself how controlled arm movement can transform you!

7. Practise

With your great script to hand and time to go before speech day, don’t just sit back and worry.  Rehearse.  It’s not rocket  science.  Ask the entire acting profession.  And rehearsing doesn’t mean reading it in your head on the train or in bed.  It means standing up and saying it out loud.  Pausing for effect.  Emphasising key words and getting to ‘hear’ your speech rather than just looking at it.  Even wear the same clothes you’ll be wearing on the day.  Develop a sense of routine.  Once you feel more in control of your content, you’ll feel the nerves disappearing.  So move onto the next step and ask someone to listen to you.  Keep going as long as their patience will allow.

8. The worst case

The wonderful thing about public speaking is that it doesn’t hurt!  If you really start to feel worried, just ask yourself that crucial question:  What’s the worst that can happen?  If you are speaking at work, you may not sound as inspirational and energetic as you’d like.  At a social event you might not get the laughs you were hoping for.  But the speech will end, you’ll go home and you’ll be ready to try again.  Each time you speak you’ll get better.  Particularly if you’re able to watch yourself on video.  To quote Mark Twain one final time, “Do the thing you fear most and the death of fear is certain”.

More Public Speaking Confidence Tips

These tips are based on my experience working with clients around the world.  Whatever the occasion and whoever the speaker, I am yet to help anyone who’s concerns were not alleviated by working on their content.  A client who feels that what they are about to stay is genuinely interesting and amusing will invariably feel a surge of confidence.  This site is full of tips on speech content and delivery.  We also provide writing, coaching and courses to help transform speaking worriers into warriors!  We can’t promise you Warren Buffet’s bank balance, but we can help you emulate his journey from glossophobia to confidence.

Get in touch by emailing us on lawrence@greatspeechwriting.co.uk or calling us on +44 (0) 207 118 1600!

Our speech for Theresa May’s new beginning

We are not political.  But we write for a host of politicians representing different parties and views around the world.  Mrs May isn’t one of them.  Tonight we offer her a few words to announce a fresh, inclusive, more optimistic start.  So here’s our script for Theresa. Pro bono!

Lesson Learned

In any profession there are times when busy people become so subsumed in the day-to-day that they can lose a sense of the bigger picture.  They are so focused on the ‘what’ that it is easy to become detached from the ‘why’.

Politics is no different.

We enter public service with a genuine desire to do good.  That never leaves us, but the bubble in which we live and work can allow us to lose perspective.

However hard one tries, it is not easy for a Prime Minister to live an ‘ordinary’ life.  Logistics – including security – mean it is not possible to do ‘normal’ things in a ‘normal’ way.  This means it is vital to spend time with people outside our political bubble and to step outside it as far as circumstances allow.

Tonight I had such an experience.

I attended the football international between France and England in Paris.  It is an experience I shall never forget.

Fans from both sides paid their respects to the recent victims of terrorism in London, as they had at Wembley after the atrocities in Paris last year.  The National Anthems were sung  with pride and without rancour. Tens of thousands fell silent as a tribute to the fallen.

The match was played and watched in a similar spirit.  Goals were cheered, skills applauded.  Players showed concern for injured opponents. Rivalry was tempered with a tangible esprit de corps.  It was an occasion from which those of us who work in Westminster and Brussels should learn so much.

Impact on Brexit

We are about to enter a crucial set of negotiations with France and the rest of the European Union.  ‘Brexit’ has inspired great passion – on both sides – and its implications will be far-reaching.

As we enter it, perspective is vital.  All the major political parties in this country campaigned for ‘remain’.  The outcome, was, of course, to leave the European Union.  A result that we will – and should – continue to support.

However, we must not forget the 48%.  Nor should we forget the history of our – often fruitful – relationship with the EU.

Which brings me back to the football match.  Two teams with different agendas.  A rivalry carried out in a cordial spirit.

Which is how I intend to pursue these negotiations.  With a keen sense of the outcomes we desire.  But in a spirit of friendship.  Intent on a beneficial deal for the United Kingdom, whilst leaving with dignity, and without sacrificing our relationships across the EU.

In that spirit I have invited representatives of the Labour and Liberal parties to join our Brexit team to ensure that this is a deal struck for the good of us all.

In Paris I experienced all that is good about the Entente Cordiale.  Let us use it as a benchmark for the challenges to come.

 

Get in touch by emailing lawrence@greatspeechwriting.co.uk or call us on +44 (0) 207 118 1600!

Corbyn and May Communication Top Trumps

So the votes are counted and the results are in.  Corbyn and May have been dissected by sharper minds than ours.  We’re not political here at Great Speech Writing. But we’re endlessly fascinated by political narrative and dialogue.

Over six weeks of campaigning, barring one rather high-profile U-turn, the parties remained consistent in terms of policy. So what changed?  How did the rank outsider, who the Prime Minister planned to extinguish entirely, end up winning more seats and votes than Gordon Brown (and Tony Blair is 2002)?  In our view, the answer is simple: Communication.

Every speech we write and review works from a very simple philosophy: Make the content relevant and clear.  Deliver it with energy and impact.  And those four criteria explain in an instant why the fortunes of the two main protagonists took such different campaign journeys.

Relevance

Means understanding your audience and talking to them in their own language.  Corbyn knew who he was talking to.  He focused on them.  He understood them and rallied them.  Young people flocked to the polling stations and turned the map red in unexpected places.  May seemed less sure.  She seems to have targeted those who had previously voted UKIP, but failed.  Her language was distant and Presidential.  The constant use of the word ‘I’ grated.  Great speakers (Obama, Clinton and Aung San Suu Kyi) are empathetic.  May was not.

Clarity

The Prime Minister’s message was incredibly clear.  ‘Strong and Stable’ has become the punchline to a thousand jokes.  But there is no point talking the talk if you can’t back it up.  A simple, clear message becomes a millstone if the speaker constantly contradicts it.  Her policy U-turn, her absence from the debates, the perception that she was removed from her own public, gave a very different impression.  ‘For the many not the few’ was equally clear.  But Corbyn stuck to his guns.  His speeches were made in front of many, not just those invited to attend.  After much deliberation he made the wise decision to attend the live televised debates.  And spoke to the many.  Two clear messages – one leader who followed through.

Energy

What is energy?  It’s not all about arm waving and shouting.  This is politics, not pop.  And yet we want our leaders to bring a room to life.  To convince us with their passion and enthusiasm.  To use language in a way that makes us believe – or at least question our own instincts.  Corbyn became increasingly energetic.  His tone became more forceful and confident.  He dressed a little sharper.  He held himself with more gravitas.  May was grey.  In every sense.  Monotone, repetitive, uninspiring.  Her voice became increasingly strained under pressure.  The eyes looked heavier.  The words appeared tied to a script.  And at crucial moments, when the country was watching, she disappeared entirely.

Impact

When we first speak to a client, we ask how they want to be remembered. If a member of their audience was asked the following morning what they remembered about their speech, what would it be?  Understanding that enables you to create impact.  Corbyn’s election campaign will be remembered as one based on a firm set of principles, articulated consistently and clearly, and in language that his target audience ‘got’.  Forget the policies; the politician became increasingly articulate and clear.  May’s was less clear.  Shrouded in sound bites and focus-group cliché.  Ultimately, she asked us to vote for her rather than her party.  And the election result is the clearest mark of the impact she made.

PS

There was a female Tory leader who ticked all these boxes and whose Top Trump ratings make hers the most popular card in the playground.  What odds Prime Minister Ruth Davidson at some point soon?  In the meantime, the Corbyn and May show seems set to continue.

Get in touch! Email us on lawrence@greatspeechwriting.co.uk or call us on +44 (0) 207 118 1600!

How to make your business speech relevant

A relevant business speech.  It’s the Golden Ticket.  No secrets there.  I’m not sure we’ve ever finished a conversation with a potential client without mentioning ‘relevance’ at least once.

And if it means ‘writing for your audience’ then it’s a crucial and admirable goal. But how do you actually become relevant?  Particularly when your subject matter is dry, your audience is tired, or the news you are communicating isn’t good.

That’s often the moment when we are asked to step in to help write the speech.  And our advice is likely to include:

  1. Empathy. You understand that they are feeling tired and impatient.  So say it.  Explain that you can see imagine what they must be thinking.  Demonstrate your desire to provide all the reassurance / help / levity required at a time like this.  Assure them that by the time you finish they will be able to take away something genuinely useful.  Begin that way and you should, at the very least, have gained their attention for the right reasons.
  2. Benefits not features.  I am often asked for the single piece of advice I would give to someone preparing a business speech. This is it: To make your subject relevant by ‘translating’ it for your audience.  From what you know into why they might be interested.  So, if you are about to review the financial year, don’t start by listing numbers. Explain whether the big picture is positive and what it means to them.  If you are introducing a new product, explain why it will be useful (and to whom) before running through its technical spec.  ‘Benefits’ don’t necessarily have to be positive, but they will always be directly relevant to the user (or listener).  Features may make the benefits possible, but without some context they tend to be dull and, by definition, irrelevant.
  3. Brevity. Unless you are a stand-up comic, JK Rowling at a book reading, or a politician giving a filibuster, it is unlikely that your audience are willing you to keep talking.  ‘Less is more’ may not be an original concept, but the audience at a business speech will generally be happier sitting still for 15 minutes than for 50.
  4. Simplicity. No audience ever complained that the business speech they’d just listened to was too easy to understand.  That it was too well structured.  That the key points were prioritised.  That the tone and message was clear.  That’s relevance!

In practice, relevance means turning this:

Bad example

“Good morning.  When I write a speech I start by checking off my list of fifteen tips. 

The first is to gather all my points together and ensure I cover everything I need to say.  I have thought about this subject long and hard and I don’t want to miss anything important out.

The second is to get my thoughts down on paper.  It’s easier to edit a speech than to write one, so I give myself something to work with.

The third is not to waste a minute.  My slot is thirty minutes long, so I don’t want to finish a second too early.”

Into this:

Good example

“Good morning everyone.

Hands up if you have ever given a speech?

And hands up if you felt your audience could have been more engaged?

Well thank you!

And I’m hoping that in a few minutes, you will feel much more confident about getting it right next time.

Because it’s incredible how many speakers – particularly in the world of business – forget that the most important way to communicate with impact …

… is not the amount they know about a subject …

… but translating it into what their audience needs to hear.

If they can see a personal benefit then they’ll be energised.  And you will instantly sense the surge in confidence that comes with saying something that people really want to hear.”

Can we help?

Please do get in touch if you have a draft that doesn’t seem as relevant as it ought, or if you’d like to discuss how we can help take it off your hands.

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