Should I write out my speech?

“On many occasions I have seen presenters who thought that displaying a great memory was more important than punching home a well-crafted message.”

Terry Neill
This is a guest post by my father Terry Neill. It is an edited version of 2 emails that I was cc'ed into recently. 
Terry Neill, speaking

Christmas 2019. We were in St Patrick’s cathedral (where Jonathan Swift was Dean) waiting for the start of the service.

A friend of one of our friends stopped by. I was introduced. He said “Oh I remember you for a terrific after dinner speech at the Strollers Club last year” , and then he said – with a laugh – “Even though it was all written out.”

I remembered the occasion. Speaking at the Strollers dinner was an important event for me. They invite excellent speakers. You have to be at your best – and funniest.

In every similar circumstance, I have a script. I know I will be nervous (it’s a source of energy). Opening and closing need the right words with the right cadence. Every punchline must have the words in exactly the right order. As the chair thanked me, he felt the need to tell the audience that “Terry had it all written out”. It was hard to know whether it was compliment or criticism. I suspected the latter.

For me, having the script means I can focus on ‘the theatre’ …. The pauses … the ‘chapter headings’  …… the changes of pace … the key repetitions …. The body language  ..the big points of emphasis ….. the build up to punch lines …..

On many occasions I have seen presenters who thought that displaying a great memory was more important than punching home a well crafted message. They showed little evidence of having thought about the audience and our assumptions… they showed little intention around the impact they wished to have on the audience.

There is a prevailing belief amongst after-dinner speakers that using a script or notes of key points is ‘un-macho’. Often times, the memory failed and key messages got lost or forgotten – or stories fell flat as the punchline got mangled.

We have to get over the embarrassment of being prepared. With some few – irritating – exceptions, ‘winging it’ is always high risk. In my experience, every great speaker or presenter is always superbly prepared – and practised. Notes or full script are a matter of individual choice. I regard them as a measure of professionalism and as evidence of a commitment to excellence.

On Practice

Golfers will know that Gary Player was/is one of the great sand bunker players. When he was asked why he seemed so lucky, he said “It’s amazing. The more I practice, the luckier I get”.

It often happens that the unplanned, informal moments provide the most powerful opportunities to deliver a message or make an impact. I know that a newly appointed CEO is generally not ready to listen – as they, usually over optimistically, take on the challenges of their new role. My role as a consultant required me to be well prepared to communicate, when that CEO was prepared to listen – which could be anytime.

If we are practising our 2/3 minute ‘stump speech’ every day – or nearly every day ….. we will discover that ‘the more we practice, the more impactful we will be when an unexpected opportunity arises.’

In about 1997, I stepped into an elevator on a high floor of the Rhiga Royal hotel in New York. I recognised the one person in the elevator was Marvin Bower – the founder of McKinsey & Co. He said good morning. I said ‘good morning Mr Bower’. He was surprised … and asked me what I did …. ‘Accenture’ (in those days Andersen Consulting). He said tell me about your firm. I had the 3 lines and he said ‘have you time for a coffee’. 

I was late for my meeting, but got to spend nearly an hour with one of the great icons of professional services/consulting. I hope that his opinion of Accenture rose as much as my opinion on him and McKinsey.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also this post inspired by my father My father’s list: Leaders and Non-Leaders (a list of characteristics of great leadership).