Thursday, 7 April 2016

In which I learn to speak

I've always fancied myself to be a good public speaker. As someone who regularly addresses audiences I'm not fazed by the thought of speaking to a few score people (or more if on radio or TV). But there's always room for improvement!

The opportunity came today when Charles Crawford, Her Majesty's Ambassador to Poland from 2003-07 and communication and public speaking expert, led a training seminar in Warsaw. As part of the preparation for the event, I was asked to prepare a 550-word, five-minute speech, which would serve as a case study for analysis.

So last night - and this morning - I sat down for a total of four hours to prepare and polish a speech about a subject close to my heart. The way Poland's poor university education is holding back the economy by stifling innovation. Having delivered two short speeches on this subject last year (to Polish entrepreneurs in London and to fellow Warwick University alumni in Warsaw), and blogged about it here, I'd rehearsed the argument well, and knew what I wanted to say.

Too well. I put down my thoughts into a Word document... and found it came to well over 1,000 words. Twice as long as it should be. Cut the jokes, cut anything slightly off-topic. Cut, cut, cut and cut again. Read aloud. Trim. Does that sound natural? Edit. Trim again. Finally, I got it down to 583 words. Not another word could I chop. It read well - as an article.

Charles took a look at my wypociny. "Too long. Trim it right back to the main points, just enough to help you remember the thread of the argument." This I did. But having done so, I no longer had three pages of flowing prose double-spaced in 15pt Times New Roman - I had nothing but a disjointed collection of nouns and figures. The stuff connecting them I had to make up on the hoof.

Delivering the speech, I did not feel comfortable. I was neither reading verbatim from a prepared text, nor was I extemporising around a set of hastily scribbled notes (as is my usual habit). I was also conscious of the race against time. Because I was filling in around the main points, the output was a hybrid of the structured and unstructured; key facts and figures surrounded by a stream-of-consciousness conversational style.

It went well enough, but by no means was it outstanding. If you think you're good, you're comparing yourself with the wrong people. Too often I hear "Panie Michale, pana była najlepsze prezentacja" simply because the others were soporific - lawyers reading dense slabs of text from a PowerPoint slide, or else people with an all-too-visible dread of public speaking. "How good do you want to get?" asked Charles of today's trainees. "Good enough for Davos?"

What's the secret? To convey wisdom, not facts. People want insight, not statistics. I could have started more strongly - either with a memorable anecdote, or a startling comparison. I could have ended with a searching question. More pauses were needed - my fellow trainees said they had difficulty in digesting what I'd said, because I was in a hurry to beat the five-minute deadline.

Charles' main message - It's not about what you say, it's about what they want to hear. It's about the core message - stripped down to the most essential - plus Structure, Signposts and Stories.

Is there anything in your speech that the audience will remember in five years' time? "Reorder your material for punch, to bring it to life. It must be strong and bright and create the right mood." You can structure the speech in different ways - by time, by questions, by contrasts, by key words, he said.

Signposting the speech is important too. Signal the turning points, the critical moments. Stress words like 'but', 'however' - and don't be afraid of silence. Silence is powerful. It allows your message to sink in, while you have time to frame your next sentence.

Stories are great ingredients for speeches. You know them, your audience doesn't, which gives you the opportunity to deliver them spontaneously, note-free.

Charles also declared war on waffle, on unintelligible words, on jargon. ('Pursuant' is one I particularly dislike.) "Use words that you use in natural speech, as though you were speaking to your aunt." He also suggested - and what an excellent idea - to dictate your speech into a smartphone with speech recognition software rather than typing it. That way, your speech sounds like a speech - and not like an article or position paper.

The three hour-long seminar was peppered with many insider stories from the world of diplomacy, lots of video clips of disasters and triumphs, and invaluable case studies of what to do - and what to avoid. Practical tips aplenty. Know in advance where you'll be speaking, what the podium is like, try out the sound system and IT beforehand to check it all works as it should - and above all, who your audience is, and what it expects. This is far more than common sense - this is experience from the very highest level, and it went down well with the trainees.

Charles' book, Speeches for Leaders - Leave Audiences Wanting More, sold out this afternoon, but can be ordered online [link is near top of the page]. Strongly recommended - will be posting review of the book here before too long.

On Saturday, I will be in Lublin, once again addressing the congress of Polish translators, so no doubt much of what I've learned today will come in valuable - skills to be passed on.

This time three years ago:
Sunshine and snow, Łazienki Park

This time four years ago:
Shopping habits in the wake of Lidl's opening

This time five years ago:
In vino veritas

This time six years ago:
Are we getting more intelligent?

This time seven years ago:
Lenten recipe No. 6

This time eight years ago:
Coal trains, Konstancin-Jeziorna

This time nine years ago:
Jeziorki from the air

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