Help! I’ve got to give a short speech at my company’s Holidays do and I’m no extrovert…

speeches,business,social,presentations,public speaking,weddings,occasions,writing,speakingDear HTWB Agony Columns

As a senior manager at my company I’ve been asked to say a few words at our Holidays party on behalf of “the workers…” I know what basic things I should say but hell – it’s the Holidays, so I know I should lighten up a bit. But that will be hard for me as I’m not what you’d
call a “showman.” What do you recommend?

Aaron from San Diego [Read more…]

OK. Hands up! Who stole SOCIAL?

Who steals perfectly good words?If you’re fond of writing, there’s nothing more irritating than a bunch of knobhead technofreaks coming along and snatching a perfectly respectable word to use for their own nefarious purposes.

Like SOCIAL, for example.

Only the other day I was wracking my little brain trying to choose a name for an incredibly valuable eBook I’m about to launch … about all sorts of social writing.

But if I were to name it something like “How to write for social stuff…” what would happen?

You guessed it. Thousands of interwebbites jumping on it thinking I had found the Holy Grail of conquering Social Media … not how to write humble things like an obituary, a Thank You note, a wedding speech, or a character reference.

May the fleas of a thousand camels infest the pubic areas of those who stole “social” and made it into an internet media cliché. You have b*ggered up my book title. Meanwhile… it gets worse…

Yep – in England…

When you’re on financial government benefits in England, you’re said to be “on the Social” (as in Social Security). Much as we thank our lucky stars in England for such help for people who are struggling, the term “social” doesn’t exactly ring bells with them about party invitations. Wrong again.

So what do I call my new book which covers all this stuff (see illustration) and much more?

What to write for any occasion

Other stolen words like “gay”

I know the word “gay” is a nice way to embody the whole same-sex issue, but it hasn’t stopped there, has it? No, no. Recently the word has ceased to be related to gender issues and just seems to be used as a way of describing something that’s a bit weak or wanky.

A far cry from the word’s original meaning of “having or showing a merry, lively mood…”

And how about “sick?”

Here in the UK, the word “sick” originated in the form as to “be sick,” ergo throw up. To feel “sick” is to feel nauseous” …  “sick” as a noun can mean vomit.

So how pleased we writing wallahs were a few years ago when thousands upon thousands of teenagers began to use “sick” as a complimentary adjective? “Yeah, that’s sick, bro.” What did that mean? “Sick” was (still is) brilliant! Wonderful! Superb! Excellent!  … yuk.

Of course that brought about utter confusion amongst us middle-agers here who had been accustomed to using the word “sick” to describe jokes, stories, real-life newspaper articles etc. that didn’t just make us puke, but also rendered us helpless with anger (or in some cases laughter) because they made fun of all the politically incorrect things you could ever imagine, and then some.

Sorry. “Sick” as the North Americans use it is the only OK version I can cope with, because it just means “ill” or “unwell” in Brit speak.

While “wicked” is still around, I think…

“Wicked” is an older term which always had a slightly tongue-in-cheek image.

But having grown up with all the kiddie stories about wicked witches, wolves and other villains I have to say I was always a bit uncomfortable calling something I really admired and liked, “wicked.”

Perhaps this was a term that grew up alongside words like “bad,” as made famous as a term for “good” by the late, lovely Michael Jackson.

I have to say, though, that I wish these bright sparks would stop pilfering existing words, use their imaginations to come up with entirely new terms, and leave my ****ing book titles alone.

What do you think? What favorite words of yours have been stolen and given new identities?

Some help to keep your words safe and sound:

“Super Speeches”…how to write and deliver them well
“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write
“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

photo credit: voa voa via photopin cc

How to structure a social speech

When you give a social speech it’s usually not appropriate to read from a script, so you need to structure the content in a way that allows you to “ad lib” through it … but to a strong structure that keeps you on topic and to time.

Research – get that right first

When you’re asked to give a social speech, it’s essential that you establish a) what you need to say, followed by b) what you’d like to say. There are very few social speeches that don’t contain at least a small element of obligatory thanks or appreciation for someone’s work, help, travel from afar or other key participation, so it’s important to keep those in mind and give them key places in your structure.

Other things can be intertwined with the obligatory sections … like anecdotes about the people being celebrated, funny (true) stories, jokes (if you’re good at telling them) and even housekeeping announcements.

It helps a lot to make yourself a brainstorming file where you jot down all these components randomly, in no particular order. Once you’re satisfied that you’re on the right track with your scribbles, the next job is to edit those down and order them into a realistic skeleton structure that will form the basis of your speech.

A wedding example

Let’s assume you are the bride at a wedding and you want to speak immediately after your father does, and then hand over to your new husband. First of all, here are some of the scribbles from your brainstorm. Underline the elements which are essentials

Mum worrying about flowers

Nancy’s dress too tight


Pete & Brian – school practical joke

Dad’s speech – thanks

Pete & Lilia – from SA

Brian’s old girlfriend on plane too (maybe not!!!)

Brian speaks next? Wants last word?

Dad – bound to tell story about me losing the hamster

Dad – tell story about barbecue (hee hee hee)

Toast to Brian/Mum/Dad/family

Thanks for coming

Thank Mum and Dad for the wedding

Now all you have to do is put everything into a logical order, and drop any ideas which are irrelevant or repetitive, which will make your speech too long, or which could upset someone and land you in hot water! Here’s what your skeleton structure might look like…

  • Welcome everyone and thank for coming
  • Thank Dad for compliments and embarrassing stories
  • Tell embarrassing story about him (barbecue catching fire)
  • Thank Mum and Dad for wedding
  • Mention Pete and Lilia travelling over from South Africa
  • Tell story about Pete and Brian, practical joke at school in Joburg
  • Make joke about Brian always wanting last word – typical husband
  • “But first,” propose toast to Brian and our families

Okay. That’s a good basis. Now you could start straight in and ad lib around those points, but although it may seem superfluous you’ll find it very helpful to create an interim stage.

Make notes in small chunks

Here, don’t try to write your actual words for the speech. Just add some flesh to those bones. For example…

Welcome everyone and thank for coming … am really touched to share this day with my family and good friends … been really generous with gifts, thanks so much … really hope you’re having a great time …

 Thank Dad for compliments and embarrassing stories … said I was beautiful, probably needs his glasses changing … great Dad, love him so much … knew he would tell that story about the hamster … will never live it down …

Tell embarrassing story about him (barbecue catching fire) … Dad always knows best … barbecue for their Silver Wedding … wouldn’t let Mum and me help … whole lot caught fire … steaks ruined, had to eat salad and dessert … then bought a book and taught all of us how to do it properly …

Thank Mum and Dad for wedding…best parents in the world whether good at BBQs or not … thanks so much for beautiful wedding … the best day of my life and Brian

Mention Pete and Lilia travelling over from South Africa … fantastic they could come here all that way … Pete Brian’s best friend when they were at school in Joburg … wonderful that he and his wife Lilia are here to share our wedding day … sad we couldn’t get out there for their wedding

Tell story about Pete and Brian, practical joke at school in Joburg … Pete & Brian don’t know I know about this … certain Maths teacher of theirs called Mrs Entwistle is still around … very interesting email from her about those two locking the Head teacher in his study “by accident,” oh, yeah? …

Make joke about Brian always wanting last word – typical husband … being perfect wife will let him …

“But first,” propose toast to Brian and our families … all of you, our families and my wonderful husband … and thanks again for everything

There. That wasn’t hard, was it? And believe it or not, you have created a detailed structure of your speech for you to memorize (and/or copy out on to cue cards to use when you’re up in front of the microphone.) This will allow your live speaking to flow well, to stick to the relevant points without “waffling” or wandering off-topic, and to be effective without sounding “scripted.”

Good luck!

Make your next speech a sparkling success!

“Super Speeches”…how to write and deliver them well

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

“The English Language Joke book”…hundreds of laughs about this crazy language of ours

Need to give a social speech? Don’t be nervous – just read this!

Need to give a social speech? Don't be nervous - just read this!

Don’t be nervous – just read this and make a great speech!

Most of us get nervous about making a speech. It’s perfectly normal. In fact if you didn’t get a bit nervous, you probably wouldn’t do such a good job. A little stress and adrenaline makes for a crisper performance – ask any theatre actor if you want confirmation of that.

When we have to make speeches or presentations for business, it seems easier. That’s because we usually have our professional “persona” to hide behind, as well as a significant amount of business information to get over. That tends to take up our allotted time so it’s largely a case of making the information concerned as interesting as possible.

However even in the business world we often find ourselves on the borderline between a business and social speech. For example, after dinner or lunch at a conference … as a closer/housekeeping section at a company convention … at a prize giving ceremony … etc.

And what about those social occasions when we’re not required to share information at all – just get up there and talk? That can be a tough one – or at least it can appear to be. But it doesn’t have to be that way, if you prepare properly. Here are my suggestions.

Do some serious research

Visualize who the people in your audience will be, and understand not only who they are, but also in what state they’re likely to be. Will they be sober, or will they have had a couple of glasses of wine with their meal? Will they have been sitting there for some time and need to go to the washroom? Will they be wanting to rush off to beat the traffic, or to get home in time to say goodnight to their kids?

Adjust your speaking time to fit in with the answers to the questions above (see below for more on how to time your speech.) There’s nothing worse than a speech that goes on for ages when the last “comfort break” has been several hours earlier. An audience who have had a few drinks will not want to concentrate on anything much more that amusing, light-hearted banter. And so-on.

In the light of all that, first of all define what you NEED to say, and give that priority in your mind. This is where you note down the people who must be thanked, acknowledged, and otherwise referred to.

Then do a bit of lateral thinking

Then think what you can use from your knowledge of your audience to make some relevant remarks about the event concerned, the circumstances surrounding it, and your feelings about it. If the event is about specific people (e.g. a wedding) then talk about them and your relationship with them.

Whatever you do, do NOT attempt to be funny unless you are 100 percent comfortable with it. There is nothing more embarrassing than someone attempting to make jokes without feeling them from within, and without connecting with the audience.

Use language and tone of voice that the audience will understand and identify with – and blend that in with your own natural style of speaking. Whatever you do, don’t try to be someone you aren’t. Build on who you really are (see below.)

Learn a few basic presentation techniques

When assembling material for your speech, write yourself a list of points – a structure. Try if you can to keep the main issues to fewer than five, no matter how long your speech is. If you can’t actually put it together as a traditional story, what you must do is ensure that one topic leads logically on to the next using some good, workable links.

If you need to make an obvious change of direction, you can do it – but you need to know how to use your stage body language as well as that other wonderful presenter’s tool, silence. Nothing gets an audience’s attention faster than a few seconds of total silence when they’re expecting a stream of words.

Whether you use a bit of silence or not you need a short, effective link. Links are actually quite useful even if they are a little abrupt, because they act as punctuation to your material. They also tell the audience that we’re now moving on to something new. Your links can be as simple as a few words, or up to a few sentences, but no longer or they cease to be links and become mini-topics.

How to start and finish

Need to give a social speech? Don't be nervous - just read this!

With the right preparation, you’ll relax and enjoy giving a speech

Many people will tell you that a really good opening and close of a speech are terribly important and in fact as long as those are good you can say pretty well what you like in between. I don’t necessarily agree. Sometimes simple, unpretentious and honest openers and closes are far easier – and more effective.

The opener and closer don’t have to be earth-shattering, but they do have to be part of you. If you’re naturally a quiet, private sort of person there’s no way you should struggle with a passionate, emotive ending to your speech, even if others think you should be able to carry it off. If a few, self-effacing words of “thanks for listening” are all you think you will feel comfortable with at the end of your speech then that’s the best choice, because you’re less likely to get it wrong.

What you say, in detail

Once you have created a structure and decided how best to open and close your speech, the best way to ensure it sounds natural is to switch on an audio recorder, talk through the structure to yourself, and transcribe the recording. (It’s a terrible job, but worth it.)

Now, edit that transcript and tidy it up a bit, but don’t take out the commas and the periods. Long sentences in speeches can leave you gasping for breath and losing the plot. And don’t add in anything you wouldn’t say in real life. If it sounds right, it is right, and if it sounds wrong it is wrong even though it may look right on paper or screen.

How a script can help

Some people don’t bother to write their speeches out in full, especially if they’re social speeches which are normally informal. But remember those poor people in the audience who haven’t been given a comfort break yet!

One of the best things about a fully written speech is that it can be timed accurately. Count the number of words in total, divide that by 120 – 150 depending on how fast you talk normally, and the result is the rough number of minutes the speech will last. Even if you’re not given a specific running time (as you may not be if it’s a social occasion) consider what you feel is the right time and cut your speech to match.

Now go out there and deliver!

Memorize the speech as well as you can, but don’t worry if you forget the odd “and” or “but.” If you say “er” and hesitate slightly now and again, it will make your speech sound more natural. What you must memorize perfectly is the content, and the order. When you’ve done that, develop bullet points to use either on a piece of paper or cue cards. Remember that at social occasions you won’t normally have a lectern or other place to read a script from, so make sure you can hold whatever you use in one hand.

Rehearse your speech until you feel comfortable with it but NOT so much that you become bored with it. That way it will come across more naturally.

And then, go out there and enjoy yourself. If you’ve prepared your speech well, you will.

Do you have any favourite tips on making social speeches? Please share them with us!

Now, speak up and get this even better help:

“Super Speeches”…how to write and deliver them well

“English to English: the A to Z of British-American translations”…more than 2,000 business and social terms from the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

“The English Language Joke book”…hundreds of laughs about this crazy language of ours

“Wedding Speeches For Women”…the girls’ own guide to giving a speech they’ll remember (USA here)


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