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Speaking and sport

Durrington Women's Institute, Wiltshire

Because my talks often involve anecdotes about amusing incidents that have happened at other speaking engagements, audiences usually assume that at my next booking I will be telling a story about them! Now, my talks have produced hundreds of speaking tips to pass on in this blog but the percentage that result in funny stories for potential use at speaking engagements is tiny - and the number that actually work well enough after being tested to make it into my presentations on a regular basis is even smaller.

In July, following my talk on My Life as a Freelance Comedy Writer for Durrington WI I sat at the front of the room in the village hall while they had their business meeting. The talk had been a great success and the meeting afterwards produced some very funny comments of its own: numerous crossed wires and innuendos. After the first, someone said 'He'll be using that!' When, after a couple more, audience members said the same thing again, I felt obliged to get out a pen and notebook and write them down, which got a decent laugh.

I don't know if I ever will use these incidents but this business of still being on show after a talk and whether you carry on 'performing' needs to be mentioned here.

Back in 1998, when I had been a speaker for just a couple of years, I spoke at a WI Group meeting in Oxford. They were a brilliant (and, as I now know, typical Oxfordshire audience) and it was, at that time, one of the best talks I'd had. As I was clearing my props away on the stage at the venue, a VCO (now known as WI Advisors) started delivering a talk of her own, which began with asking whether any of them had considered how, for example, self-massage could lead to 'a whole new you'. All eyes were upon me still on the stage behind her and I couldn't resist reacting to this with some exaggerated facial expressions. This got a big laugh and the poor speaker realised what was happening and said 'Well, he has to get his material from somewhere!' and I got off the stage. Afterwards we chatted and she didn't mind, in fact she booked me for the Oxfordshire WI Markets Annual Lunch the next year, another great gig, but I look back on it as unprofessional behaviour by a fairly novice speaker.

But now, many years later at Durrington some continued participation was clearly expected of me and I played along but, generally speaking, when you've finished, you've finished - don't upstage the speaker who's on after you!

Public Speaking Tip #490: Your stage time at a speaking engagement starts and ends with your presentation - unless you are definitely expected to continue to contribute in some way, perhaps in a joint Q&A with other speakers, judging a competition or drawing the first raffle ticket. You should never upstage the speakers who follow you.

My thanks to Marion for running me back to Salisbury station.

Odiham District U3A

I had a double booking the next day, the morning engagement being for Odiham District U3A in Hampshire. One of the great things about travelling around doing all these talks is that sometimes I find myself speaking in some wonderful historic buildings. In this case it was the 16th century Cross Barn. It certainly beats turning up to work in an office!

My Life as a Freelance Comedy Writer got a great response and was followed by a very good Q&A session. Many thanks to their Speaker Secretary Jim for getting me back to Hook station in good time to travel on to my next gig that day.

Monks Brook U3A

My afternoon talk was at St Boniface Church Centre in Chandlers Ford for Monks Brook U3A, who I last spoke to in July 2009 but I actually got rebooked by them as a result of speaking at Shaftesbury and Gillingham U3A in August 2011. Repeat bookings sometimes come to a speaker in a roundabout sort of way!

Public Speaking Tip #491: Repeat bookings for a speaker usually come directly from an organisation itself but can sometimes occur as the result of speaking elsewhere!

My previous talk had been The Power of Humour in Everyday Life; this time it was My Life as a Freelance Comedy Writer. There can be some overlap between these two presentations as I have content that is an ideal fit for both but I do have enough tried and tested material to deliver two totally different talks - important for an audience that I had only spoken to three years earlier. The version I did on this occasion allowed me to go into extra detail about comedy writing itself.

I can remember how one of my earliest talks back in 1997 went very well at a Hampshire luncheon and led to a super testimonial letter and an invitation to return less than a couple of years later to speak some more on the same subject. At that time I was spending more time honing the material I already had  than on adding new content. This repeat booking involved a massive amount of new material, untested and added just for that day. The result was a lukewarm response, no testimonial that time and no further bookings! You have to have enough strong, honed material before you can return to an audience for a 'Part 2' presentation. It was a lesson that I have never forgotten and I still bear it in mind whenever I am asked for a 'Part 3!'

Public Speaking Tip #492: A presentation to an organisation may go so well that they invite you back soon afterwards to speak some more about the same topic. Beware! Have you exhausted your strongest material? Was the success of the engagement due to how well the content had been honed over a long period? Is there really much you can add that is worthy of an audience's time? Returning too soon to the same audience with a substandard second instalment of a presentation can ruin the fond memories of the first and damage your reputation - which it may not be great for your confidence either! Look for new audiences and don't return to any previous one until you are really confident about your additional material.

No problems at Chandlers Ford, in fact I received this email from their Joint Speaker Secretary Ann:

"Thank you very much from Monks Brook U3A for your funny and interesting presentation to us on 4th July. It was most enjoyable and we wish you luck in your continuing work as a comedy writer and presenter".

Daryl Hall quote

Singer-songwriter Daryl Hall of Hall & Oates gave an interview in the Sunday Express. What really stood out for me was where he spoke about the passing of his fellow musician and great friend, the bassist Tom 'T-Bone' Wolk. He always used to describe him as "the ampersand in Hall & Oates".

I thought this was a beautiful way of summing up what he meant to him. This type of description would enrich any eulogy as it's almost an obituary in a single phrase. But such a tribute could also be a perfect addition to many other types of speeches.

Public Speaking Tip #493: Could you summarise your feelings about a person in one moving phrase? Think of what a terrific contribution that could make to a birthday, wedding, anniversary or retirement speech or, of course, a eulogy.

Bramley Women's Institute Birthday Meeting, Hampshire

I had one further booking in July, once again for My Life as a Freelance Comedy Writer. The audience this time were Bramley WI who meet at Bramley Village Hall. This was their birthday meeting and there were guests present from other local WIs.

Before the talk, I met Jane, their publicity officer, and, as my talk involves stories about writing and, indeed, clubs' press officers, I made occasional references to her. You have to be careful with this - I don't always feel entirely comfortable with the way that some comedians pick on audience members to make fun of them - but gentle references to personalities at a speaking engagement can help to tailor your content. Of course, there are some after dinner speaking gigs where jokes about committee members are expected - even if the speaker has never met them! And then there are wedding speeches...

But my inclusion of Jane was to emphasise my points about writing, in particular reports about speakers, and she was a good sport.

Public Speaking Tip #494: Unless you are delivering an after dinner or best man's speech where jokes about certain audience members are de rigeur, you should always keep any references to personalities present at your talk fleeting and any humour about them gentle.

Since this talk, the Hampshire County Federation of Women's Institutes Chairman Brenda Fletcher who was present that night has already recommended me to another group. My thanks to her and to the lady who drove me back to the station. I have to say, though, that I wonder how many motorists ever manage to drive in or out of Bramley - I don't think I have ever seen a level crossing that gets so much use!

Public Speaking lessons from the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony, media coverage, Paralympics Closing Ceremony and Olympics and Paralympics Victory Parade

I was interested to hear the speeches by Lord Coe and Jacques Rogge, President of IOC at the brilliant Olympics Opening Ceremony. Can you imagine speaking in a venue in front of around 82,000 people while being broadcast live to possibly four billion worldwide?

Lord Coe delivered a very good speech but then I would guess that his presentation in Singapore in 2005, possibly the greatest British sales pitch of the past decade, the one which secured the Games for London, may have been more nerve-wracking!

Jacques Rogge's speech in a second language was also impressive. It seemed a shame that all the positive comments about sport had to be accompanied by a warning to athletes to reject doping but when a competitor was disqualified on the very first day it was proof that this plea had been necessary. 

I wondered how both must have felt speaking to such a huge crowd in that stadium. Probably very few audience members were visible to them due to distance and lighting so they would probably have had very little visual feedback from facial expressions but would have avoiding the pressure of seeing the entire crowd!

The Olympics coverage itself produced some points to mention here. The Games started on the Saturday and on the Monday morning I watched the then Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt being interviewed on TV about ticket allocations. Then, right at the end of the interview, came a question about whether it was disappointing that Great Britain had not won any gold medals yet (remember, this was after just two days!)

With hindsight, the question seems ridiculous in view of Team GB's performance (I actually thought it to be a bit daft at the time as well) but interviewees, especially politicians, are often subject to these 'curved ball' last-minute questions, often about different topics from the ones they had agreed to be interviewed about.

This can sometimes happen in a Q&A at a speaking engagement as well - you can get some strangely off-topic questions (after a talk on My Life as a Freelance Comedy Writer in 2000 I was asked afterwards whether the BBC was going to broadcast the Queen Mother's 100th Birthday Celebrations!)

Public Speaking Tip #495: Always be prepared for the possibility of off-topic questions, whatever subject you have been speaking on. Unless you are a politician, it is quite acceptable for you to say you don't know the answer or even (with charm) that this is not what you are there to talk about!

A great resource for tips on handling media interviews is the free weekly Media Coach ezine from Alan Stevens. It's one of the few newsletters that I open the moment it arrives and I would urge any speaker to subscribe.

The word 'legacy' was flying around everywhere long before the Games ended. One of the most amusing interviews (or non-interviews) I saw was an early morning report about children taking up sport. A reporter had been sent along to a gym where a 9 year-old boxer was practising. The girl was obviously far more keen to carry on thumping nine bells out of a punchbag than to talk to the hapless interviewer. Every question was met with silence. 'What do you like about boxing?' No reply. In the end, the reporter was suggesting answers himself: 'Is it because...?' Still nothing. He gave up and handed back to the studio where the laughing anchor wished him luck for the rest of the day. His next report an hour later featured an older and rather more enthusiastic interviewee.

Not everyone wants to - or has to - be a public speaker. It's a great thing to learn (and more schools really should teach it) but here was a case of someone who was at a club for a particular purpose and being expected to take time away from it for a non-essential speech. I'm sure that if little Brooke's boxing career progresses then she may see the need to be interviewed at some stage but the fact that a more willing speaker was found for the later interview made me wonder why the programme ever chose to bother her in the first place. Presumably the novelty of her age.

Public Speaking Tip #496: If your organisation is asked to provide a subject for a media piece then choose the person who will enjoy it the most and give the best interview. In an ideal world, everybody would be a competent public speaker; in the real one, some are more suitable than others!

At the Paralympics Closing Ceremony, Lord Coe summarised the seismic shift that they had produced, his description made all the more effective by its use of repetition:

"I don't think people will ever see sport the same way again, I don't think they will ever see disability in the same way again".

Public Speaking Tip #497: Experienced speakers often use lists of three for maximum effect but a pairing can sometimes work very well.

I must comment on Boris Johnson's great speech at the Olympics and Paralympics Victory Parade in London last week. Three sections really stood out.

"You brought this country together in a way we never expected. You routed the doubters and you scattered the gloomsters.

That bit was great - rather poetic, in fact!

"And for the first time in living memory you caused Tube passengers to break into spontaneous conversation with their neighbours on subjects other than trod-on toes."

Humour perfectly tailored for London. The reference to spontaneous conversation drew such a laugh that it rather drowned out the bit about trod-on toes!

And then came this killer line:

"Speaking as a spectator you produced such paroxysms of tears and joy on the sofas of Britain that you probably not only inspired a generation, but helped to create one as well."

As Boris pointed out, he could get away with that!

Public Speaking Tip #498: Risque humour can often be perfectly acceptable at a celebratory event - as long as it's used sparingly and the speaker is absulutely sure of their audience.

Finally, do take a look at this post on Lisa Braithwaite's always-excellent blog Speak Schmeak where she compares the regular wasted opportunities of public speakers to be their very best with the way in which many Olympians only have a window every four years.




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