Writing a contest speech

handwriting on paper

Day 1.

I have the ‘brief’. To write an inspiring and motivational speech for a modern business audience. Seven and a half minutes. Visual aids and props optional. The competition, the UK Business Speaker of the Year contest. The top prize, two thousand pounds.

I had a read of the rules, researched the competition. Viewed what the winner from last year did. Then I went to bed.

Day 2.

A Sunday afternoon and the girlfriend wants to get outside in the sunshine. I grab a pen and two different size notepads (a small one for quick thoughts, a larger one for if the big idea comes and mind maps are needed).

Led on the local common I jot down the obvious issues faced by the businesspeople of today. The word ‘recession’ keeps coming up. Everyone will be doing the recession. I need a different angle.

I start mind mapping key elements of being a business in a recession.

Everything from buying less staples to a collapsing Eurozone. Not very inspiring.
I think back to my Toastmasters experience. Every book I have read on inspiring others. The message needs to be personal. The workforce is ‘personal’ (personnel, in fact). It’s all very well being a leader in a recession. But we’re not all leaders. Some of us have to do the legwork. How does it feel for the man on the factory floor?

I hit upon morale and motivation. But that’s not sexy. I employ a method I have recently read about for writing jokes; mindmap two very alternative themes and then look for common links. I go for ‘recession’ versus ‘morale’ and the word margin comes up.

The ‘morale margin’ sounds good. But it needs some meat. Such a fluffy idea won’t win a business competition. It needs supporting evidence. It’s likely that the competition will have numerous examples, inspirational quotes, anecdotes and supporting evidence. Most of them will be professional speakers who collect such information for a living. I work 9-5 (8-6) and have read fewer business texts in the past year than I would like.

It starts to rain. We are in the UK after all. In total 20 minutes has passed. It appears that the British summer has just been and gone, and now so have we, as we head back to the car.

Day 3.

Work. The morale margin is in the back of my mind. I try and compare it to profit margins and cost margins whilst driving to the office. I almost run down a family of three. Best save the pondering for home time.

Day 4.

Write a short ‘manifesto’ for the morale margin on the back of a bank statement whilst dinner is cooking, aided by a can of beer. It stacks up. It even has a business case behind it. I fall asleep with a smile on my face and slightly less tense that knowing that I am making progress.

Day 7.

I haven’t found time to even think about the morale margin in days. The tension, and the fear, of not having enough time to write and learn a speech of good quality returns. Coincidentally my motivation returns in equally strong measure. I make a promise to myself that tomorrow I’ll ‘write’ the speech.

Day 11.

Life got in the way. I sit down for a power hour and write the speech. Well I write my first draft. It’s simply:
• ‘where we are currently’
• ‘why it’s ok’
• ‘how in fact we could be better off looking at the moral margin’

and then finally

• ‘ why the morale margin is what we all need to be focusing on’

It has no conclusion. It doesn’t even have a decent, engaging introduction. But it’s got meat, legs and it stands-up. It’s also devoid of too many clichés. There’s a good number of points made using the rule of three.

There’s even some natural humour in there, although this may just seem funny to my tired mind. I’ll double-check tomorrow.

Day 12.

No, really, it is funny. Enough to raise a polite titter at the very least, which is good. It needs an introduction, which I write in under ten minutes. I’ve had this idea about settling my own nerves on the night by asking the audience questions in my introduction and getting them to raise their hands in answer. It will engage them and give me time to breathe and take them all in. If they raise their hands they’re engaged – it’s a confidence boost. I stick to the rule of three again and ask them three questions. This will take a lot of time up…

Sh*t, I’ve forgotten that I only have seven and a half minutes. I run through the speech manuscript in my head and time myself. Eight minutes with no conclusion.

Better to have too much than too little I guess. I resolve to write the conclusion and worry about editing it down tomorrow.

The conclusion is ok, but I worry that I’ll need a high energy performance to make it memorable. I finish with the words ‘ the morale margin’ but will it mean much if it’s just my voice?

Day 15.

Life once again gets in the way of writing, as one needs to eat, exercise and earn a living. It’s a few days until I return to writing and editing the speech. Cutting bits out is easy. There’s a lot of fluff in there. I time myself again and I’m down to six minutes. I need to add something back in, yet everything that I have cut out adds no value to the speech.

After a cup of coffee and some procrastinating I resolve to put in a story about a nameless person, something that the audience can relate to, something that emphasises the point of the morale margin and something that is believable. A story can inspire and enforce a point. The story I concoct (!) seems to do just this. And it fits perfectly with my seven and a half minute requirements. At last things are going my way with the writing. Result.

Day 18.

I’ve spent the last three evenings practicing my speech out loud. I start with the script (in its fullest form) in front of me and gradually work until I can remember the structure and key points that I need to hit within my seven and a half minutes. By evening number three I can muddle through the speech in a suitable time, even if I don’t always use the exact words or lines that I desire at each stage. It’s a start.

Day 22.

I’ve cut the script down to just four headings, which act as prompts as I talk. Before each full, out loud rehearsal of the speech I revise the key phrases that I need to hit, word for word. When I first begin, I’m getting an average of two out of the ten phrases in correctly. Four nights later, on day 22, I now have them all down perfectly.

Day 23.

Things are going well. I know the speech, I can give the speech, I’ve highlighted lines that need extra volume, emotion or pace and I’m pretty certain that within seven and a half minutes I will give a good account of myself. It won’t be a train wreck.

But there’s something missing. The UK Business Speaker of the Year contest final (the evening event) is likely to have at least six speakers in it. That’s almost an hour of men in suits preaching. If I were in the audience, no matter how interested I was, it’s likely that by speaker number six, I would have switched off. To stand out therefore, I’m going to need a signature trait to my speaking.

For the past six years ‘my signature’ has often been the fact that above and beyond being able to speak in public to a good level, I have a baby face. The surprise element of standing-up and appearing to be a teenager, but then speaking as someone with a few more years on them than it appears has helped to win over (and surprise) a lot of audiences. At the UK Business Speaker of the Year contest, not needing to shave is unlikely to win me any awards. I need something different, something new.

There’s a style of speaking that I have wanted to attempt for some time, but never had the right brief, or amount of rehearsal time to achieve well. As such, I have not yet had the chance to attempt it. The style that I’m speaking of is used particularly well by a comedian that you may have heard of; Dave Gorman.

Dave uses vast amounts of image-led slides in his talks. As he speaks, the slides behind him change rapidly, with each slide demonstrating or supporting a word, sentence or proclamation by the speaker. He uses up to 40 slides in a minute using this method and to make it work well has to memorise every single slide so that the image on the screen behind him is never wrong, and he doesn’t have to keep glancing at the screen to check the slides are displaying correctly.

It’s a wonder to behold when Dave Gorman is in full flow and adds momentum, life and engagement to his speaking. Check out an example below.

It’s also bloody hard to do.

But if I’m going to try and do well at the competition, then this is the kind of thing that will make me stand out.

So I set to work highlighting words and phrases that can be supported by a slide. I then produce the slide deck and rehearse as best I can.

I have 70 slides for a seven minute talk. I also only have a few days left before the competition. I soon realise that however hard I try, using this method isn’t going to work. The margin (!) for error is too high.

An hour later, I have cut the slides down to nearer 20 and can (just about)
muddle through them without losing my way and without looking at the screen.

Day 25.

5 days to go until the contest and things are going well. I know the speech. Well, I say I know the speech, but that’s not true.

I know 95% of the speech. The 5% that I don’t know is a list of ten ways to use the morale margin to beat the recession that I want to rattle off quickly and succinctly to impress the audience. The pace and clarity of the list is it’s real impact and it’s a vital part of the ‘big finish’ that I want my speech conclusion to be.

It’s also the 5% of the speech that I’ve been procrastinating about and saying to myself (both consciously and sometimes sub-consciously) that I will learn later. With five days to go, there isn’t much ‘later’ left and so by the time I go to bed I have the ten items written out and pinned to various items around my living room. I have the list brown down in to three sets of three points, and one final point. I’ve invented a rhyme to help me remember them. I have a copy to take to work tomorrow to pin to my computer screen and my phone contains an audio recording of my reading them aloud.

With the ten items swilling around in my brain (they’re all in there somewhere, I just can’t remember them altogether!), it’s unlikely I’ll get to sleep quickly tonight.

Day 26.

Rehearse all evening. Out of ten attempts I get the list of ten items correct three times.

Day 27.

Rehearse the speech four times tonight. Get the list correct eight out of ten times. Getting there.

Day 28.

Rehearse speech five times. Get list right three times. Two steps forward, one step back?

Day 29.

Rehearse four times. Get list right every time. I then proceed to give myself a talking to; ‘I cannot do any more. Whatever will be, will be. It’s too late now to panic’.

I pour myself a beer, have a bath, watch some football and go to bed.

Day 30.

The day of the UK Business Speaker of the Year contest. I won’t give you the full story, but I think my mood, my mental state and my need for energy for the performance is summed up by a list of all of the things I ate that day. As the culmination of an article in which I have laid my speech-writing process bare so that others can learn from it, this menu recommendation comes with a health-warning; don’t try this at home (or at your next public speaking engagement, for that matter).

– Porridge
– Five chocolate fingers
– Three Mr Kiplings Apple Pies
– A chicken salad sandwich
– A bag of Hula Hoops crsips
– A Snickers chocolate bar
– A banana
– An apple
– A bag of cashew nuts
– Three cups of coffee
– Half a tube of Pringles crisps
– A full pack of Jaffa Cakes
– A pint of beer

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Rich Watts is the UK Business Speaker of the Year and a past JCI National Public Speaking champion. He setup and now runs Rich Public Speaking providing presentation skills and public speaking training.

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