How to (not) write a great presentation script, part one

By Dr Simon Raybould of Curved Vision

Many thanks to one of my favorite experts on presentation skills for sharing his brilliant advice with us here…

I’d like to start with a summary of what I’m going to say – and this has got to be the easiest blog topic to summarize I’ve had to tackle in a long, long time.  Of course, the hard part is how to actually carry out what’s in the summary… but the summary itself is simple!

The key thing you need to look out for (and avoid) when you’re writing a presentation script is this: it mustn’t sound like you wrote a script.

See?  Told you it was easy!

The thing is, for the vast majority of us, we write in a different ‘voice’ to how we speak. We use different words, different patterns and different levels of formality: we tend to move towards the formal in the written word.

Let’s take that last bit as an example “we tend move towards the formal in the written word”.  I wrote it like that because that’s how I write (unless I’m making a conscious effort not to). If I was talking to you in a pub, in a cafe or from a stage in a presentation however, I’d probably say something more like “When we write stuff down, most of us get a bit more formal”. It means the same thing, it’s just a more relaxed way of phrasing it.

With the exception of (good) speechwriters, writing something so that it sounds exactly as we’d say it is very tricky. Very tricky indeed… which is why good speech-writers are well paid, I’d say! (Note from Suze: you’re right about the first part, Simon; I just wish you were right about the second part, too!)

No matter how well you deliver a written speech it’s still going to sound like a written speech and as such it’s not going to engage with your audience so well. People don’t like to ‘receive’ – they prefer to ‘be engaged with’ – and that means that for maximum effect on your audience you need to sound like you’re relaxed and speaking to them personally. How can you do that from a script?

So what can you do about it?

Personally, my preferred option is to know my subject area so well that I don’t write a formal speech. I start with the oral presentation in my head and so I use one of the many (seriously, there are lots!) of tools for defining structure and then work from that in defined steps until I’m on stage. I’m not going into detail about how to do that because I’m assuming that if you’re reading Suze’s blog you’re more of a writer than a speaker and this is a speaker’s approach, not a writers – in fact it probably doesn’t even make sense to a writer! 🙂

The alternative is approach is to start with your speech, written as you would write it and then work on that to make it sound more natural when you deliver it orally. It’s a different mindset but hopefully it can get you to the same point!

Now, obviously, you can do at least some of this work on your script by reading what you’ve written and (with your hand on your heart) asking yourself if you can re-word it to sound more natural when it’s spoken out loud. I suggest you have a go at this before you use any tricks below because it helps… but it’s not enough.

Find out what more you need to do in part two of Dr Simon Raybould’s “How to (not) write a great presentation script” – here on HowToWriteBetter next week!

Dr Simon Raybould’s career started in research (into the cause of childhood cancer). He’s now one of the UK’s leading presentation skills trainers. He’s also in demand as a conference speaker, specializing in personal resilience, stress and confidence.

Want some more help with presentation scripts etc.?

“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

“Business Writing Made Easy”…everything you need to know about writing for business in English

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

Weddings: the “father of the bride” speech, by a woman

Here we look at the key elements of the traditional “father of the bride” speech and how a woman should deal with them should she be replacing that man for whatever reason…

The father of the bride speech by a woman

How the father of the bride speech easily can be given by a woman

Talk about the bride

Even in these equality-driven days this is more her day than anyone else’s and it’s one she will remember for the rest of her life. As “another woman” you may not have quite the close, cuddly relationship with the bride that her Daddy would, but in many ways this can be a good thing. You will probably be able to sing her praises and underline her qualities in a way that Daddy never could, expressing genuine admiration without being overly sentimental.

For a list of ALL our articles on wedding speeches for everyone from groom to granny, click here

[Read more…]

A speech at very short notice? No problem…no, really!

There’s nothing more terrifying than being caught on the hop by someone at a function who says, “ah, (your name) – can you just get up and say a few words to” (thank someone, introduce someone, cover up for an embarrassing issue, lose time because another speaker has been caught in traffic, etc…)

Here are some tips that will help you shine on this occasion even if you only have a few minutes to prepare the speech or presentation.

Never use language you wouldn’t use in normal conversation, because it makes you sound stilted, artificial, and boring. ALWAYS be yourself. Especially at short notice, sticking to the way you speak normally will make you come across more credibly – and easily.

The best speakers always talk to audiences as if they were talking to a friend over a cup of coffee – a natural, friendly, personal style.  Always bear in mind that audiences want you to do well; they’re not a lynch mob out to get you.

Write yourself a quick list of points to use in your speech or presentation, that includes a beginning, a middle and an end. Start by thinking of the issue in question – the person you’ve got to thank or introduce, why they’re there, what they mean to you and the audience.  Relate those to the occasion or reason why you’re all there.

Imagine yourself speaking about those points, and make sure they’re in the right order. Scribble down some further thoughts to fill in a bit of time … weather outside, traffic in the area, light-hearted mention of something that was on the news today.

Now, edit those points and tidy them up a bit, but don’t take out natural changes of pace. However clean up any sections that you think may sound lumpy and awkward in the speech. Reduce the points to a few trigger words that will make you remember what to talk about.

Depending on the occasion, it helps to add in a bit of humour in your presentation, as well as one or two anecdotes – preferably personal ones – to illustrate the points you make. Recall some appropriate jokes that you know, or if you have time, do a quick internet search for jokes about your topic and adapt one or two of those.

Also on the internet via your phone or laptop, you can run a quick search for a couple of quotations to use. Narrow the search by specifying the type of quotation you want – literary, political, humorous, etc.

If you should find that you have time to work out how long you should be up there saying a few words, calculate how many words fit into a given time slot – people speak at 120 – 150 words per minute.  Multiply your speed by the number of minutes, and that’s how many words you need to write.

Most important of all is to rehearse a bit – even a few minutes locked in a toilet cubicle going over it your mind for five minutes. Then go out there … and enjoy!

More help with your speech if you can spare a couple of minutes…

“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

“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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