The content was really great and the way the words were put together was quite clever. Obviously a tremendous amount of work had gone into this piece. The speaker had a background as a professional journalist and the careful selection of just the right vocabulary and the descriptive flourishes were excellent. The speech was a dud.
It failed miserably because it was read to us. He could have emailed it to all of us so that we could have read it for ourselves. Even had we struggled with some of the big clever journo-style words when doing so, we could have referred to our dictionaries.
The next speaker just spoke. He wasn’t such a fluent talker, sometimes stumbling over some of his words, occasionally stuttering, but he had everyone’s attention because he was authentic. He wasn’t reading to us, he was looking at us and connecting with us. He had a slide deck, but he just used this as his navigation, to help draw us into his story.
The issue here is how should we reproduce the content we have designed. Do we have to remember it exactly, memorise it so we can be faithful to our speech design and message? Speakers get very hung up on their content. They feel that they have to deliver the perfect coalition of words to get their message across.
Our first speaker couldn’t memorise his speech because it was too long. That is the case for almost all of us—usually the sheer effort required is not worth it. His speech content was far superior in terms of the construction of the content compared with that of the second speaker. But he failed as a communicator, because he read it to us. All of his effort went into crafting the script and nothing into the delivery.
Risk of a whiteout
If it is a very short speech, you can try to memorise it, but that is only useful on very special occasions. Japan is a very formal country, so if you are asked to speak at the wedding of a friend or subordinate, there are established protocols and sentences that must be used in Japanese. If you greet the Emperor of Japan, then there are set things you must say in Japanese—the specific content depending on the occasion.
Mick Jagger told me not to drop names, but I have done both and I did memorise the content. These were short pieces, so I could manage them without getting myself into trouble.
I did get myself into trouble, though, trying to memorise a longer speech. I was the dean of the Kansai Consular Corps at the time and was asked to speak at the farewell party for China’s consul general before he left Osaka for America.
I had studied Chinese at university and, although pretty rusty, thought I could pull off a short speech. Because I am not a fluent speaker of Chinese, having lived here in Japan for 30 years, I had to memorise the content. The plan was to memorise the first part in Chinese and then switch to Japanese, which is much easier for me.
As the Australian consul general in Osaka at that time, I thought this would be a pretty deft piece of national branding, emphasising Australia’s commitment to Asia.
But this is where memorisation can get us into trouble, even when trying to do so in our mother tongue. Since I wasn’t doing this in English, it was a high-risk strategy. I was doing fine, actually, until I got to a quote from the famous poem by Mao Zedong called Reascending Jinggang Mountain. All of the Chinese guests in the audience immediately recognised it and started applauding enthusiastically. At this juncture I made a fatal error.
After having an internal debate with myself, I decided to wait for the applause to die down and then resume. Because it was a memorised speech and not natural conversation, it was a forced exercise to remember the words. Suddenly my mind went completely blank, a total whiteout.
I could not recall what came next. If you are ever up on a big stage, facing thousands of expectant faces, and your mind goes blank, you will find that a solitary microphone stand is not much cover behind which to hide your embarrassment. After about 20 seconds of stone-cold silence—which felt like an eternity—I was somehow miraculously able to pick up the next part and complete the speech, before switching into Japanese. Probably wiser to avoid memorising your speech then.
Please don’t read it to us, either, if you can avoid it. If it is a highly technical speech, something with gargantuan legal implications if you get it wrong, a life or death statement to the media, or one on behalf of your absent big boss, then you may have no choice.
If so, then please use as much eye contact with your audience as possible. You can study the material, such that you really know the content. You can read the first part of the sentence, then voice the last section while looking at your audience and still remain perfectly faithful to the sacred text.
You can read the words and add in gestures to emphasise the message. You can stand straight and tall and project confidence, reliability, credibility and trust, rather than hunch down over the microphone stand. You can have pauses to allow the audience to digest the key points. You can hit key words to stress certain points and can use voice modulation to bring the text alive. Do not have your head down, eyes glued to the text and cut yourself off from your audience.
Even better, read your audience, not your text. Observe if they are buying what you are saying and see if they understand the point. You don’t have to memorise your talk or read it to us or read the slides to us. You can have speaking points and talk to those points.
For the vast majority of speeches, a conversational tone of talking to key points will work extremely well. If it is severely formal and you have to either memorise it or read it, well go ahead. However, if you don’t have that type of situation, then look at us, talk to us and engage with us. We will forgive any sins of grammar, pronunciation or lack of speaking fluency in the delivery.
We will connect with you and we will receive your message. We will regard you highly as an authentic person who spoke from the heart. And we will remember you in a positive vein.