How not to die at the podium

Thursday 26th July 2018

Speech Writing

Whether you’ve been on the receiving end of a bad speech or you were the one on stage flailing away as your audience skimmed through their social media feeds, we’ve all been part of a fizzer of some sort and it ain’t pretty. We asked communications expert, Ross Neilson, of Menin Media, to share his advice on how to deliver the right words to make your audience switch off their phones, switch on their brains and listen to what you have to say...

Here’s a conversation you will never have.

Neurosurgeon: ‘It’s a very delicate procedure and somewhat risky, but we have to operate. The tumour will kill you if we don’t.’

You: ‘Yeah, thanks doc but I thought I might have a crack myself. I’ve got a cordless drill and some good chisels. I’ve had a bit of a look on Google and I think I’ve got the main points.’

No. If anyone is drilling holes in your skull, you want the best surgeon there is - the one who trained for a decade and practised for two more. You want a professional. Cost is almost irrelevant.

If you attend enough conferences and conventions you’ll soon realise that people can die on a stage just as easily as an operating table. If that happens in front of 500 people you’ve never met, plus 5 you have because they’re your bosses, actually dying might seem a good option.

The actor Andrew Tighe recently wrote a brilliant post for Industry Moves about delivering a speech. His advice was gold and I urge you to read it and follow it.

But even before that, I urge you to think about what you will deliver. Words. A great many words. Depending on how they are chosen and crafted, they can form a blanket of boredom, a blizzard of bull dust or the raw material for a memorable, career-enhancing performance.

The content you provide and the way it’s composed is the difference between people checking their email and Facebook feeds and people sitting attentively, soaking up your words and applauding enthusiastically.

The best technique on earth can’t cover for leaden sentences, illogical arguments or jargon-ridden verbal sludge.

Andrew’s blog offered 5 tips for successful performance. Interestingly, versions of the same ideas also form great advice on speech writing.

Breath - critically important. Your eyes and brain can take in quite long and complex passages of written text. Try reading one out loud and you’ll soon sound like you ran all the way to the conference.

You will run out of breath. That will compound the effects of nerves and trying to project your voice. It will shatter your mental composure.

No professional speech writer will give you material that’s not easy and comfortable to say out loud. It must be structured to follow natural speech rhythms with regular and logical ‘pause points’ where you draw breath.

Action - it’s central. Creating a sense of action and purpose is impossible unless the language chosen is itself active and purposeful. Avoid passive voice, bureaucratic and overly ornate language like the plague. Like the plague, it’s a death knell for your speech.

So if a writer offers you stuff that sounds like this: “The difficulties were exacerbated by the interpretations of prudential requirements made by the major commercial lenders”… And another produces sentences more like: “The big banks caused this problem”… fire the first and hire the second.

Drive the energy to the end - again, critical to holding that audience. If your words run out of steam before your sentence runs out of words, you’re adrift at sea and your audience is floating away.

Speak in your own voice - perhaps the most important point of all.

If the writing is not authentically your manner of speech, the audience will know in a heartbeat. You will sound phoney.

If your job requires regular public speaking, find a professional writer and develop a rapport with them. Allow them to get to know you, what motivates you, what fires you up. And how you naturally speak.

Make time to discuss each project at length so the ideas you want to communicate are clear. Review drafts and give feedback. Invest the time, as a partnership, to craft the text.

Then rehearse it, out loud, as many times as you can. Time it, tape it, play it back.

Do all that, and standing ovations await.

Ross Neilson

Ross Neilson can be contacted at or +61 431 455 379.

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