Tips from a prolific public speaker

First published in the Financial Times on 26th November 2013

Keep to the point, make it memorable – and shorter than the audience is expecting

A sure sign the economy is recovering: more invitations for paid speaking engagements. During tough times the frequency of such gigs slumps because everyone wants a speech for free. But recent experience suggests that budgets have been boosted, and diaries are busier.

I usually only undertake gratuitous speaking assignments if they fall into one of two categories: either the sponsor is a charity where I have some connection; or the occasion is directly relevant to my work.

Over the years I’ve learnt to be firm: otherwise you can end up travelling hundreds of miles at your own expense to address an audience of four in a village hall – without even so much as a thank you afterwards.

For the past decade I’ve probably delivered between 30 and 50 speeches a year, the substantial majority gratis. Of course I enjoy it – both preparing and performing – otherwise I wouldn’t do it. The fact is nowadays virtually all ambitious executives are required to present in a public forum in a fluent and confident way. There are ever more conferences, conventions, seminars, symposiums and suchlike. In the age of digital communication, such face-to-face oration becomes even more important. If you suffer a phobia about public speaking – as many do – then I recommend you organise media training. If you choose the right instructor it can work wonders.

Apart from certain rules about which bookings to accept, I have learnt first-hand my limitations when it comes to execution. I never drink before my slot: alcohol is sure to impair your performance – and you will enjoy a glass a great deal more when you sit down after the act.

Meanwhile, I always draft my own material: at Channel 4 TV when I was chairman, the very competent PR supremo wrote a speech for me, but it just wasn’t my style, and I felt a fake reading his lines. It takes time to compose an address, but at least it means your pitch is authentic.

I never use tools such as PowerPoint. I think these devices distract from the content – listeners don’t know whether they should be listening to you or scribbling down the bullet points from your slides. And the audiovisual system so often packs up, leaving you without a prop in mid-flow.

I try to hold the attention of the crowd without visual props but with my words. That means avoiding jargon, and putting forward ideas with impact that can inspire.

After all, straightforward information is available everywhere: what audiences desire at a live event is something uplifting and memorable.

I can’t really tell jokes so don’t attempt to craft witty speeches. At the Edinburgh Festival I have witnessed at close quarters many dozens of brilliantly funny stand-up comedians do their acts. They are full-time experts, and what they do is really difficult for amateurs to pull off.

It takes great skill and practice to make audiences laugh, and if you fail your speech will disappoint. I recommend that you only try to be amusing if you know you have the gift and are willing to put in the time to rehearse.

Usually I am willing to give talks only on topics I know well and where I have something to say – subjects that matter, where I possess personal experience, so that my stories resonate.

Typically a host will ask me to speak for 30 or even 45 minutes. But I know that at most modern gatherings the attendees do not want to sit and listen to such a long monologue. They much prefer a punchy 15- or 20-minute piece and then interaction and participation. My father once told me always to make your speech slightly shorter than the audience was expecting – and I think he’s right.

Hence I always suggest an extended question and answer session rather than a droning speech that bores people. Moreover, questions are actually more fun and challenging. You cannot really prepare in advance, and you are more likely to say something indiscreet or controversial in response than during an entirely scripted rendition.

Giving speeches is ultimately a form of showing off, yet mastering the art can be both satisfying and good for one’s career.