CHARACTERITICS OF A BAD SPEECH
July 15, 2013 6 Comments
Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), 28th President of the US was once asked how long it took him to write a speech. He answered “That depends. If I am to speak for 10 minutes I need a week for preparation. If 15 minutes, 3 days. If 30 minutes, 2 days. If an hour, I am ready now”.
In my time, I have heard some really terrible speeches both in business and in private gatherings. These have included a large number of people who just stood there and read out every line on their vast collection of PowerPoint slides, many with their backs to the audience, as well as those who had little to say but felt compelled to say it anyway. Gladly these passed into the obscurity regions of my brain fairly quickly, unlike some that I will carry to the grave, not only because they were really terrible, but also because they taught me something worthwhile about what was important in delivering a speech.
Here are my four most memorable awful speeches, including one of my own.
Lesson 1: Don’t leave control of any aspect of your speech in someone else’s hands.
“The closest to being in control that we will ever be is in that moment when we realise we are not.”
I had the honour in 2001 of being one of the first Western businessmen to address the Russian Parliament, only due to the fact that SAP had been invited to address the Duma on the subject of Electronic Government. Even though my 20 minute speech was simultaneously translated into Russian, my team in Moscow had prepared about 5 PPTs in Russian around my key points. For some strange reason they wouldn’t allow me to control my own PPT management, and I was introduced to a young man who was to sit at the back of the vast Chamber of Deputies, with the laptop which held my presentation. Our plan was that my right hand wave would initiate going forward and my left hand wave would result in a return to the previous slide. The problem is that I speak with my hands, and with such a vast distance between us this young man could not tell the difference between a forward-wave and an emphasis-wave. As a result, the PPTs behind me were whipping backwards and forwards faster than a myopic Scottish sword dancer who had forgotten to pack his shoes. I found out afterwards that he had reached the end a number of times, so felt that he had little choice but to go back to the beginning.
Lesson 2: Stick to the topic and the timing.
“Everything that is ponderous, vicious and solemnly clumsy …. is developed in great variety by the Germans”.
Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher (1844-1900).
At a major customer event about 15 years ago, with over 10,000 attendees, the opening keynote was planned as a 40 minute overview of our technology directions to be presented by one of the company founders. Unfortunately he arrived at the conference incensed about the unsportsmanlike behaviour at a major yacht race the previous day, which had been shown by his counterpart at a major competitor. While he started his keynote following the intended script, he very quickly launched into a diatribe about this particular competitor and his company that went on for over 2 hours. It would have gone on for even longer had not the conference organiser walked onstage applauding as he did, and thus generating a spontaneous audience ovation, having all heard enough on this topic. This not only meant that our customers were confused and surprised, if somewhat bemused, but it also meant that our next two speakers, both senior externals, immediately left the conference heavily displeased, having not gotten a chance to take their place at the podium to address the gathering.
Lesson 3: Preparation is everything, and so is sobriety.
Mark Twain, American author and humourist (1835-1910) said “It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech”.
Some years ago I was asked to propose a toast at a close friend’s 60th birthday party. I worked long and hard preparing a 15 minute light-hearted look at some of his obvious, but endearing, idiosyncrasies. As I was aware that I would be speaking after a rather long and alcoholic lead up to the actual dinner, I was very careful to regulate my own alcoholic intake, figuring that I would still have a significant amount of time available to indulge myself after the toasts were concluded. Sadly, this was not the case with the birthday boy, who imbibed with vigour but felt challenged and honour bound to reply to my toast, despite being totally unprepared and in an advanced state of brain function impairment. What followed was 40 minutes of unrelated, mostly incomprehensible, ramblings, platitudes and drivel, which only ended when his wife walked over and took the microphone out of his hands.
Lesson 4: Lose any anger before speaking, in all circumstances.
Ambrose Bierce, American author and journalist (1842-1913) said “Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret”.
I attended a wedding where no-one had previously bothered to tell the mother of the groom that the bride (a rather large girl) was actually about 6 months pregnant, with twins as it turned out a few months later. When she realised this situation on the actual wedding day, it so angered the MOTG that she spent the entire wedding breakfast drinking heavily and heckling every single speaker, until she lost any last modicum of self-control and wrestled the microphone from the groom’s hands. She then spent the next hour telling the guests every sordid detail that she could dredge up from both sides of the wedding party, including commenting on the Bride’s sluttiness and the Groom’s low intelligence to have been suckered into marrying such a slattern, because he was obviously too stupid to use contraception. It was like watching an episode of “Peyton place goes bridal”, and was so memorable that we still talk and laugh about it 30 years later.
We can learn much from endeavours that have gone well, but we can learn so much more from things that have gone badly. If nothing else, we can at least learn to make sure that we try hard not to repeat them.