‘You’ll be expected to say a few words after dinner,’ is, for many people, one of the most feared phrases in the English language – on a par with a pilot announcing: ‘We’re about to make this landing on water.’
If this is you, help is at hand. JEREMY LEE is founder of JLA (jla.co.uk), which represents some of the world’s leading afterdinner speakers – such as Mikhail Gorbachev, William Hague, Ian Hislop, Mary Portas and Gabby Logan.
Here, he reveals the secret of a successful speech.
IT COULD BE YOU
We are called upon to speak in public far more often than we think. Most jobs involve speaking to colleagues or management meetings and in many occupations, such as teaching and the law, it’s done on a daily basis. Even if this isn’t you, weddings, work leaving speeches and even family get-togethers often require some form of public speaking. The truth is we could all do better by following some basic rules. One of the most common mistakes is misjudging the audience; telling them something that is entirely irrelevant to them.
KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE
Whether it’s 2,000 people in a conference centre or ten in a community centre, it’s essential to be aware of who you’re talking to. Think about who they are, where they’re from, what they are expecting and what binds them together. This will give you an insight into how to approach your speech. At a wedding, people will be more interested in hearing stories about the happy couple than in anything you can tell them about you.
Avoid cliches like the plague. Stock jokes and phrases often go down badly and can produce groans from the audience – which will certainly put you off your stride. If you’re nervous about remembering what you want to say, read from a script. It may not be the most scintillating performance, but at least you’ll say the right thing. When you become more experienced, you may wish to progress to a single cue card, with bullet points to spark your memory. If you do need a manuscript, hold it at chest height so you’re not constantly looking down. Don’t learn your lines verbatim, as it usually leads to memory failure.
Screen your material so that you don’t offend anyone and check your material for duration. If you’re not a seasoned speaker, don’t go on for more than ten minutes. On average, you get through 130 words in a minute. A good rule of thumb is to work out how long your speech is and then cut it in half.
A little stress can make you sharper. A lot can turn you into quivering jelly. But friendly interaction can relax you. Smile at the audience and you’ll get a smile back. When we’re nervous our breathing becomes fast and shallow, meaning you’re likely to garble. Take deep breaths to moderate this. As far as alcohol is concerned, the rule is one glass only. Try your speech out on someone, but not people who will only compliment. You need constructive criticism.
Use some of your best material at the beginning. If you don’t grab people from the start, they’ll start talking. In the middle you can vary the pace and tone. Your speech should tell the audience something they don’t know about something or someone they do know. End on something powerful, either a laugh or a call to action. That way you’ll keep them hooked.