Ben Dodson

Freelance iOS, macOS, Apple Watch, and Apple TV Developer

How not to deliver a speech

Yesterday, Ed Miliband delivered his speech to the Labour Party conference but embarrassingly left out a large portion about one of the most important topics of this decade; the budget defecit1.

I’ve given quite a few speeches in the past and often give out advice to people (mainly developers) who are preparing to give a presentation or some form of pitch. The two key pieces of advice I always give out are:

  1. Don’t write your speech
  2. Don’t use notes.

In my opinion, you should never write a speech out in full. To do this means you are then locked in and can’t adapt to a changing situation. This is especially true if you are doing a speech in which you have to follow someone, something goes wrong2, or you are talking about things that could change. Additionally, I don’t believe in using notes. Nobody wants to see their presenter looking down at a little card, or worse, a mobile phone. If you are going to use notes, keep them discreetly on a table and only consult them whilst your audience is applauding or laughing (if they are doing neither, change your speech). They should also be only the loosest of bullet points to keep you on track.

Ed made a mistake by breaking both of these rules badly. He wrote a speech but then made changes at the 11th hour (about the Scottish referendum) making it harder to memorise; he also (very stupidly) distributed the speech in advance so it was obvious when he had left something out. Finally, he had notes printed on thin paper through a clear table; easy for anybody with a camera (i.e. the national press in the front row at a political conference) to see and know when you’ve missed something.

There are a couple of exceptions to these rules:

  • If you are doing a presentation which includes some form of slideshow software, this is a lot easier as the bullet point skeleton is already written for you. You don’t need any notes, just be sure to scan over the upcoming slide whilst you are talking and be ready to speak around that subject. Never repeat what is written on a slide (which should be sparse) unless it is a quote. Any presentation by Apple is a great example of how to do this incredibly well.

  • If you are delivering a eulogy, these rules do not apply. You should have it written in full and printed to read from. Never give a eulogy from memory.

The key thing with any speech or presentation is to sound authentic. To do that, I believe you have to connect directly with an audience and not rely on remembering huge passages of text. It is much easier to have a few loose bullet points in your mind and then flesh it out as you are presenting.

In the end, a speech is simply a one-way conversation with multiple people. Imagine you are telling a friend about the thing you are speaking on and everything should fall into place easily. If you try to remember an essay, then the speech will be difficult to remember, uncomfortable to watch, and far more likely to go wrong.

  1. You could say he had a defecit in his speech *rimshot* ↩︎

  2. My favourite example of this is the original iPhone launch. Towards the end of the presentation, Steve Job’s ‘clicker’ broke so he couldn’t advance the presentation. Whilst he was waiting for it to be fixed, he told a brilliant anecdote about Steve Wozniak jamming televisions when they were younger. The whole delivery was natural and unscripted and he was able to recover straight back to talking about predicted market share - you can’t do that when you are leaning heavily on memory nor a text-heavy presentation. ↩︎

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