What makes a good speech?

Recently the blog heard a speech delivered in which the speaker spoke without notes, had a well-ordered and well-thought out presentation and interspersed it all with evocative (indeed potentially moving) quotes from historical figures. Was it a good speech? Well actually it was very ordinary.

The speaker was Dr Brendan Nelson, Australian War Memorial Director, at the Wheeler Centre’s April debate on whether Anzac Day was more puff than substance. The blog previewed the debate (24/4/13) in an item. The video of the debate can now be seen at http://wheelercentre.com/videos/video/intelligence-squared-debate-anzac-day-is-more-puff-than-substance/ so readers can judge for themselves.

So why did the blog think the speech was ordinary? It wasn’t because we disagreed with him, but rather because it sounded totally synthetic as if it was a thing he had done too many times before. In his defence, he had flown down late from Canberra and had to get back and seemed a bit out of sorts, but then lots of people who make speeches have that problem. It sounded ordinary because it was just too smooth – a reaction which others in the audience seemed to share. Most of the rest of the speakers were terrific. My old Army colleague, Nick Jans, was very good arguing that it wasn’t puff and used anecdotes about the Marysville tragedy and community and his own war service extremely effectively. John Martinkus is a very good journalist and cinematographer but probably should stay away from public speaking. On the affirmative side Marilyn Lake and Jeff Sparrow were effective and lucid. But also on the affirmative side, Graham Wilson, an ex-Digger was terrific. He was frank, down to earth and funny.

The whole night made me think a bit about what makes a good speech. Nick Jans and GrahamWilson were effective because they were authentic, spoke from personal passion and interspersed vivid anecdotes with arguments. Some years ago the blog had a manufacturing industry client manager who ran an operation which had ongoing problems with various community groups. As a result he had to do a fair bit of local media work as well as lots of presentations and more informal talks. Now the manager, although intelligent and a great success as a manager, was not on the face of it the best communicator around. Not much polish, spoke too quickly with ideas in his brain moving faster than his speech patterns and the antithesis of the smooth, packaged presentations we see as almost standard stuff from business and political people these days. There was some talk about giving the manager some media and presentation training but the consensus was that it was a really silly idea. He was himself and the respect he had in the community came from that, not some artificially created presentation skills.This is not to say that media and presentation training is useless. But it is to say that the vicious circle of journos and ex-journos training rafts of people in evasion and particular styles to talk to other journos is why so much TV and radio is so boring and so many interviews are not conversations but totally artificial.

The manager simply had something Dr Nelson didn’t on the night of the debate – authenticity. The blog is certain Dr Nelson was sincere in what he was saying but he somehow never seemed sincere because it was all too smooth, polished and inauthentic. The lesson for the blog was that too much of our training in presentation and media skills is too homogenised. We train out the spontaneous and authentic and replace it with polished glug. In the meantime we lose the trust of listeners and viewers because they recognise the lack of authenticity. Incidentally, if anyone who read the previous blog piece previewing the debate remembers the questions we wanted to ask if we could – we did get to ask them and even included an extra one. You can find both at the 1 hour 38 minute and 14 second mark of the replay. You can judge for yourself whether the blog sounded authentic or not.