VITAL SIGNS: Speak for yourself

VITAL SIGNS: Speak for yourself - Do they mean me? Those introductions from the conference ring-master make one sound so extraordinarily interesting. They also mean that in about 20 seconds you've got to enter stage-left and walk impressively to the lecte

by PETER YORK
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Do they mean me? Those introductions from the conference ring-master make one sound so extraordinarily interesting. They also mean that in about 20 seconds you've got to enter stage-left and walk impressively to the lectern or, worse, stumble from the front row of the audience up some little steps in the half-light (real danger of foolish trips) or, most worrying of all, rise to your feet at the top table from the ruins of a factory-made pavlova and get them in the first two minutes.

My favourite line is always 'I stand naked before you', because, of course, it's utterly true (as anchor-man, however, I favour 'I hope you'll give him a warm hand on his opening' - you can't go wrong with those dignified classic sentiments).

Speeches provoke the most delicious Schadenfreude. In Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe describes how intellectuals just love seeing a rival's rhetorical flights and elaborate constructions collapse in a tangle of banalities and incomplete sub-clauses. It's shameful and certainly not team playing, but it's also one of the greatest private pleasures known to management man.

Speech-making is the management equivalent of the academic's 'publish or perish'. It's part of the process of moving from middle to senior management, from specialist to star. As a board member, you'll make at least eight to 12 big set-piece speeches a year. Externally, you'll be marking the firm's financial calendar with the City, with journalists, at discreet lunches for 12 and at AGMs packed with absolute nutters. Internally, you're rallying the ranks, breaking bad news and setting off the annual hooleys (the awayday, the Christmas party, the lot). It's an opportunity to shine, to sell, to get people on-side. It's your one chance to convince people who really matter that you've got it.

But back to Schadenfreude. What constantly astonishes me is how many clever, engaging, articulate men and women, people capable of reaching FTSE boards before they're 40, people who are direct, forensic and funny when unscripted on their home turf, can be quite so awful on a platform.

The commonest mistake is to start speaking a sort of foreign language - a more dignified, elaborately constructed language than you normally use. You start talking like the first, worst business textbook you read at 21, like an academic paper, dense with show-off references, a mass of aural footnotes. And often in a funny voice because you're trying to iron out your natural accent (too 'regional', too posh, too un-Management Person 2002).

The strain of saying things you never normally say, in a voice you don't normally use, means the important things - like looking at your audience, responding to them - go by the board. You stare down at your script, very obviously reading it.

Trainers like Polly James (yes, the former Liver Bird), from the presentation company Trinity, say the hardest thing is to help people find their own voice and meanings in a speech. What do you really want to say? Is it a call to arms? Is it about reassurance? Is it about describing your work, in which case remember that you start a mile ahead of your audience in knowledge and enthusiasm, and you're to take them with you.

Ideally, you'd have a stump speech - one that can be endlessly recycled, topped and tailed, revived with topical and local stuff - for a range of audiences. A speech you really know, one that works, like a favourite suit or dress, one you feel confident about, that lets you concentrate on eye contact and relationships. It will be about something that matters to you, and that'll come across.

When you're really at the top - senior minister, FTSE CEO - your speeches are mostly written for you. You haven't time to research the history of the Cardiff factory or the Women's League for Something. It's a mixed blessing: it saves time and you'll always get a professional job. Senior civil servants and public affairs directors know how to produce a seamless product, to sound that note of genial gravitas that Brits expect from top people. Your own speech may be much more ragged, but if you get it right, it will be that much more direct, urgent and personal.

The ideal is a speech collaborator who takes over the research, the structure, the smoothing, and the topical agenda, but leaves you to dictate the themes and write the bits that matter - the argument, the plea from the heart - in your own style. Failing that, find someone who can 'do' you better than you can yourself.

Peter York, in his persona as Peter Wallis, is managing director of consultants SRU. e-mail: peter@sru.co.uk.

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