Speech making redefined: throw away the script and and talk

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton
Former U.S. president Bill Clinton


The Canada School of Public Service provides leadership, training and development skills to public servants. Dennis spoke to a group of about 60 in Ottawa in what is called an Armchair Discussion. His topic: “Throw away your script: speech making redefined.” Bill Clinton does it. You can too. 

Speech making redefined

Good morning everyone. I notice that Bill Clinton spoke in Ottawa last week. Before Mr. Clinton got onto other things, he provided some advice about giving a good speech. He said that you should concentrate on three or four themes, and that you should throw away any notes that you might have prepared.

That’s my theme this morning. I am calling this session, Throw away your script: speech making redefined.  Anyone who aspires to leadership has to be a good communicator. We can’t all be Bill Clinton or Tommy Douglas or Stephen Lewis. But we all have the ability to speak well. We don’t have to read our way through laborious texts. Peter Mansbridge can read a text and make it sound almost like conversation, but most of us can’t.

I should mention that I want to talk this morning about the delivery of speeches, but also about writing speeches. I know that many of you write speeches for others.

I have seen this from all sides. I have been a newspaper & television reporter. I have been a radio host. I have been a Member of Parliament. I have made many speeches of my own. I have also written speeches for others, and I still do that.

You will say “Yeah but how do you do it?” I am going to tell you. To do that, I will break this up into sections. I call them: Researching. Preparing. Presenting.

Audience research

Let us talk first then about research. I was invited here today by the Canadian School of Public Service, so I did a little audience research. I talked to staff here and asked some questions. What does this organization do? Who will be in the audience? What might they be interested in hearing? Who has spoken to them recently & about what?

So that is audience research. But a speech has to convey some information and you will have to research the content. To take a minor example, I read the newspaper about Bill Clinton’s speech in Ottawa last week and I clipped the article. I also went to his website and read some of his other speeches. You will each have your owns means of obtaining information when preparing a speech.

I always keep a few important reference books close at hand when I write. I have several dictionaries. I have a Thesaurus that allows me to find synonyms, which, as you know, are words that mean roughly the same thing as other words.

I keep several books of speeches close by, including one anthology that I prepared. It is called Great Canadian Speeches, and it contains 68 of the best speeches made in Canada between 1835 and 2002.It is the only such book in Canada.

There are also web-based services that can provide quotations on almost anything. One of the best is Bartlett’s quotations. I also subscribe to a free daily quotation service on the web. I save the quotations that I like and now I have a whole stock of them.

John Robert Colombo compiles the best books of Canadian quotations, and I have several of those books.

The point is that you should collect your material from wherever you can:  from websites, databases, books, magazines, television programs, movies and music. If you are writing speeches, you have the license to be a Renaissance person who ranges everywhere in pursuit of knowledge.

Research and presentation are closely linked when you write speeches, so you have to be careful. We talked about quotations. My advice is this – quotations can be useful, but don’t over do it. Keep them brief.

And stay away from longs lists of figures and statistics, that is unless you are the Finance Minister. In that case, well, good luck.

Write the way you talk

I said earlier that you should throw away your script, but I did not mean that you should not have some brief notes.

You will make an outline, of course, unless we are dealing with just a very brief set of remarks. You can build some speaking notes on that outline. They can be either cryptic or written out in full. But eventually, you should boil it down to some code words or phrases on sheet of paper or two — or better yet, on a few cue cards. I am using cue cards today. I like the four by six inch variety. Write out in full any quotes or figures that you are going to use. You don’t want to get those wrong or to stumble around trying to recall them.

Writing for someone else

There is a difference here between preparing an outline and cue cards for yourself — or preparing material for someone else. If you are preparing for someone else, you may need a full text, or at least speaking notes. Try to write the way you talk. It’s not as easy as it sounds. There is a great skill in writing conversationally, and it is one that radio and television people have to master.

Rehearsing the speech

At some point, in some way, a speech has to make the transition from the written word to conversation. This is the hardest thing to convince yourself, or your boss to do.

A lot of work goes into research and then into writing the speech. But it is when you have the script completed that the real work begins. People judge you on what they hear from you, not on what you might have written on sheets of paper.

You have to get that material off of the page and make it live and that’s why I recommend that you throw away the script in exchange for a cue card or brief notes.

You have to talk your material. You can’t read it. You do this by rehearsing, by speaking it out loud. In fact, you should also be speaking out loud as you write in the first place. If you read the material silently, you won’t find the rhythm, you won’t notice sibilance, and you won’t notice the clumsy phrasing.

When you rehearse, stand before a mirror. Make faces at yourself. Whisper your words. Then shout them. Say them aloud to your partner or to anyone else who you trust. Rehearse in hotel rooms, in the car or the cab on your way to the engagement.

If you are making a very important speech, you might want to read it into a tape recorder, or even better, to a video camera.

In doing some, or all, of these things, you are getting more familiar with the material — you are making it your own.  That familiarity builds your confidence.

Preparing to present

Here are a few other nuts and bolts regarding the day of your presentation. Be sure that your voice is ready, especially if you are speaking in the morning, as I am today. Do some tongue twisters.

Say, Peter Piper picked a peck of peppers.

Say, How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

Your mouth and the muscles in your face have to be ready as well. You can do exercises. Stretch you mouth as widely as you can and say a shrill EEEEEE. Make a circle with your mouth and say a deep OOOOOO.

Get yourself relaxed and loose before you go to the podium. You can do this even while sitting in a room filled with people. Sit comfortably on your chair. Have your hands hanging loosely at you sides or on lying loosely on your knees. Breathe deeply, slowly and quietly, in an out, in and out. Close eyes if you wish. Get yourself centred.

When you go to the podium, don’t rush. Plant your feet at about shoulder width. Stand comfortably and be sure not to shift or rock back and forth. Have drinking water at hand. You should either have asked to have it there, or you might bring it yourself.

Your hands may feel awkward, but they will take care of themselves once you begin. Place your cue cards or your sheet of paper page before you. Stand close to the microphone, but not so close that you pop.

Making the presentation

How do you actually make a good presentation? Let’s hear from one of the masters. Tommy Douglas was not only voted the greatest Canadian, but he was a great orator as well.

I have adapted some of his notes about public speaking. Let me quote (briefly):

Public speaking is a combination of natural gifts, self-discipline and years of practice and all of us can improve our ability. So said Tommy Douglas.

He went on to say this: Someone has laid down three basic rules for public speaking: Stand up – to be seen. Speak up – to be heard. Shut up – to be appreciated.

Make eye contact with individuals in the audience. Above all talk to people. Pretend that you are in the coffee shop, the living room, or at the rink. These are your friends. Talk to them. Inform them. Amuse them. Tell them stories. Tell them anecdotes.

Stop when you have made your point. Having driven home your arguments and finished with a rousing call to action, quit while the audience is still with you.

Tommy Douglas said this: The mind can only absorb what the seat can endure.

I am going to take Tommy Douglas’ advice and stop now.

Let me restate my theme.

Anyone who aspires to leadership has to be a good communicator

We all have the ability to speak well.

But to do that, you can’t read at people. You have to talk to them.

So, take Bill Clinton’s advice.

Throw away your script and talk.

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