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Tony Allen: And finally ... Glossophobia

May 19, 2015
How do you feel about being locked in a darkened room full of tarantulas? Well, according to a recent survey, if you are anything like the average person, you would prefer this to actually having to make a speech in public.

Unfortunately, this is something which, sooner or later, many of us will have to do. Weddings, funerals, birthdays, our job; whether we like it or not, one day the call might come. But why do we dread it so much? What happens to us when we hear those words: I wonder whether you would like to make a speech …?

“Thank you for asking but in fact I would absolutely hate it. Between now and when I make the speech my life will be full of terror and sleepless nights. I will spend this time with the feeling that a steamroller is slowly moving towards me and I won’t be able to get out of the way. I’m afraid I will have to say no.”

How many times, in the moments before you are about to stand and make your speech, do you wish that this had been your response? What do we normally reply?

“Thank you for asking, I’m really flattered. I am really looking forward to it.”

I’ve made a lot of speeches in my time and in my experience  it’s often not really as bad as you think it’s going to be. I’ve known lots of first time speakers who find it so exhilarating that they actually want to get up and do it all over again.

No matter how many times you make speeches, you still get nervous and there are always speeches that don’t quite work – get over it! Even the best speakers have this problem. I remember once at a BAR Conference when the guest speaker was the late Lance Percival and I was designated to look after him beforehand. Now some of you might not remember him but I can assure you that he was an extremely proficient actor and comedian with lots of experience on stage and screen. He was a very nice man – but appeared extremely nervous; I was due to make a speech myself at the same conference and I must confess I found this very encouraging (schadenfreude?). I should tell you that he then went on to make an absolutely amazing speech (damn and blast!).

The one thing I do know is that (to paraphrase) ‘an unprepared speech is not worth the paper it’s written on!’.  Or to put it another way, it really is true to say that: failing to prepare is also preparing to fail. In my experience the speeches that you feel most confident about, and therefore don’t bother to prepare for, are often the ones that don’t go down so well. So even if you are asked to make a speech at short notice and you haven’t had a chance to prepare (and after you have been to the mens’ room) and if you have time, write a few key words down on the nearest piece of paper with a hastily borrowed pen (toilet paper doesn’t work). At least this will give you some structure and might help if your mind goes blank - a curse which can strike even the best.

An old boss of mine said to me once that public speaking was all about the ‘three ups’. These were: stand up; speak up; then, as soon as possible, shut up. Good advice really because, when you come to think of it, we want to make our speech as if we are the absolute epitome of good entertainment. But we are not professional actors and we are not professional comedians. So prepare, practise, and relax. And finally when that steamroller finally judders to a halt just before it gets to you, don’t just stand up and launch into your prepared speech, start with a non-scripted aside in the form of a question (Isn’t this a lovely venue? Are you all nice and relaxed? etc.). This will relax you and, most of all, it will relax the audience - they are on your side. If you try to be too perfect, any mistakes you make will only in turn make the audience become tense on your behalf. For this reason even professional speakers, who probably are word perfect, go out of their way to appear slightly more spontaneous - you just watch.   So finally, I know I’ve used the word ‘relax’ quite a lot. But it’s true, nobody is expecting miracles from you - but it’s a lovely surprise when it happens.

And talking of miracles, I’ve got to make a speech at a charity ball in a couple of days’ time. I think I might hire a room full of tarantulas instead.

Photo: Tony Allen.

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