Making A Conference Speech
The challenge of presenting at a conference or large meeting is to hold the attention of the audience in a situation where they can switch off anonymously. It means that you either need to have compelling content or keep them entertained with your great presentation skills.
Something for everyone
Is your talk technical? Will it be of interest to all or just a few? Think about the different interests in your audience. Make a list and include something for everyone.
What response do you want from the audience?
Think about what the response you want from the audience. What do you want them to...
Know - this is the information you provide
Think - the opinion you wish them to form
Feel - the emotion you would like them to experience
Do - action you wish them to take
This framework may help you structure your talk and create highlights. Remember that your audience needs a small "pick-me-up" every few minutes if they are to stay interested. It might be humour, dramatic emphasis or something particularly interesting or entertaining.
Connect with your audience
Speak to your audience. Address their needs and contextualise what you are saying as a benefit to them. Use the I word liberally and try and avoid the passive tense. If you know people in the audience refer to them by name - but ask their permission first if it is at all controversial.
Connect physically: look at the audience, sweep the room so as to appear to be making eye contact.
Connect emotionally: show shared values. Politicians do this well. In his acceptance speech as Prime Minister, Gordon Brown said "All I believe and all I try to do comes from the values that I grew up with: duty, honesty, hard work, family and respect for others"
QC John Mortimer used to say "If the jury laughs during my final address then a favourable verdict is 90% likely".
People want to be entertained - that is why Lee Evans can fill the O2 stadium with 20,000 people and politicians struggle to get 100.
Few of us are professional entertainers, but we can all be upbeat, light hearted and throw in a sprinkling of self-deprecating humour.
Hillary Clinton has come in for criticism for being a bit starchy. In a presidential campaign meeting she was asked "what do you ask God for?" Hillary neutralized her brittle public perception with a self-deprecating reply "You know, sometimes I say, 'Oh, Lord. Why can't you help me lose weight?"
She got a laugh and the audience was on her side.
Use your spoken language
Some speakers write the speech as they would an essay. Big mistake. We write and speak differently. Most of us write using longer, less familiar words and a complicated syntax that includes lots of clauses and parentheses. That is the way we are taught to write at school and university.
The spoken word is easier on the ear, it is simpler and it is easy to follow.
Secondly, it should be your spoken word, not anyone else's. Keeping it natural will help you feel at ease and it will sound heartfelt to the audience.
Belief, commitment and enthusiasm sell. Tony Blair is a charismatic and persuasive speaker whose passion and conviction helped him win three elections with a massive majority.
Make it vivid
Metaphors, similes and other rhetorical devices can add colour to your speech. It can also make it memorable.
On the creation of the communist Soviet bloc, Churchill used the words... "An iron curtain has descended across the Continent" and the metaphor iron curtain became part of our language.
Grouping points in threes is a powerful rhetorical device. Lord Spencer employed the power of three at Princess Diana's funeral...
I stand before you today...
the representative of a family in grief,
a country in mourning,
before a world in shock
The power of repetition - again in threes - was well-used by Tony Blair when he emphasised his priorities with the words education, education, education.
Long before that in 47BC Julius Caesar is reported to have uttered the phrase veni, vidi, vici - I came, I saw, I conquered.
Contrast can add impact to your words. When Neil Armstrong planted the first human foot on the moon he used contrast to memorable effect when he said "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind".
If you would like to read more about this, Lend Me Your Ears by Professor Max Atkinson is a good book on public speaking.
Take your time
Conversation rattles out at around 170 words per minute. This is too fast for a conference speech. Of course we can't actually count the words per minute but we can slow down to a relaxed rate. Remember, the audience will be several words behind.
Don't ask your audience to think too hard
Ask your audience to think too hard and some will drift away while others will get so wrapped up in the issue under discussion that you will leave them there long after your talk has moved on. So keep the arguments easy to follow. And avoid complex language and jargon.
The more challenging your content sprinkle images and video generously throughout to lighten it up for the audience.
Keep it lively is always good advice, but never more so if you are presenting in the middle to late afternoon of a one-day conference. The last time I stood on a conference platform it felt as if I had walked into the set of Shaun of the Dead. The previous speaker had sucked out the audience's will to live.
Change the pace. Be shamelessly upbeat. Add a touch of melodrama with a few theatrical gestures and some dramatic pause.
Practise reading your speech aloud and keep practising. If there are bits that do not sound natural then re-write it in the spoken word.
If you are likely to have to take questions then think what they might be in advance. If there are gaps in your knowledge then seek out someone in the audience who will agree - in advance - to take the highly technical questions.
Learn from the experts
Why can some people hold an audience enthralled with their public speaking? What makes Bill Clinton a speaker that audiences will pay to listen to? Here are some of his qualities as a speaker..
Confident body language
Doesn't go too fast
Makes lots of eye contact
Comfortable with humour
Uses everyday words
Talks with emotion
Lightly sprinkles his talks with anecdotes and metaphors
And, of course, lots of practice! Good luck.