Be yourself. This simple injunction is good advice for most kinds of writing, but when it comes to speechwriting, it overrides all other considerations.
I’ve spent the past two weeks running workshops on writing and giving speeches, and although we explored use of slides, preparation, structure and many other important issues, this is what lingered in my memory.
Three women went first, and all had prepared something to say on a particular topic. All three were excellent but the one who had chosen the most personal topic was the most engaging.
Then it was the turn of the men, and the same applied. When they were given a script to read, they were initially unconvincing, but as they practised and began to ad lib, they became better. Not surprising, perhaps, but utterly conclusive. In the end, all an audience really wants to hear is the authentic voice of whoever is in front of them.
Acquiring the confidence to be yourself is not always easy. But it is essential. We see the opposite at business conferences every day as yet another besuited figure gets up to work through a series of bullet-pointed slides – not being themselves but trying to represent what they think they ought to be, and utterly wasting that precious chance to connect with an audience.
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The three party conferences of 2011 are over, and even political anoraks are relieved. It is a poor commentary on all Britain’s professional politicians that the most memorable speaker from all three parties was a 16-year-old schoolboy.
None of the party leaders distinguished themselves in their conference speeches – although there were instructive features in all three.
Nick Clegg’s speech was the most focused. Read my analysis of the all three party leaders’ speeches to their parties.
Ed Miliband needed to make a big impact in his speech to the Labour Party Conference. He did not do this for me, as you can see in my instant critique on the politics.co.uk website.
The speech had far too much stale politician-language – especially in the peroration, where he most needed to stir hearts and fill minds. “Fulfilling the promise of Britain … a new bargain”. Whose heart beat faster at these vapid phrases? Who remembered them afterwards?
The speech failed to make an emotional connection with its audience either in the hall or with the more important one outside it. Why?
One major reason was that far too much of it was expressed in negative terms. Time and time again, Ed Miliband defined himself by what he was against, or who he was not, or what he was not going to do. Negative statements invariably have far less colour and drama than positive ones, and in Miliband’s speech their proliferation left vital questions unanswered: what are you for, who are you, and what are you going to do?