I wrote yesterday about my eight speeches this week. Actually, to be fair, it is six but I have been prone to exaggeration from the day I was born.
Naturally this gets me thinking about the very act of speaking in public. As with most social phenomena there are three core dimensions to a speech: content, context and form. This week’s speeches range from one at the end of what looks like a fairly standard public sector event, to a talk on a quite specific topic to a specialist audience. The demands made by these speeches are very different. For the former the emphasis is on being entertaining and lively while guarding against the temptation to be sloppy. The quality of the content is, to be honest, secondary. For the latter, the choice is whether to try to speak at the level of specialism of the conference delegates or to cop out by promising to ‘put the issues in a broader context’.
I guess I have about an hour’s worth of core script, roughly based on the material in my three RSA annual lectures. So one question is what proportion of the speech I can legitimately and usefully make up of this material. Last week I spoke to a group convened by the Bishop of Salisbury. The subject was broad. The kind of speech which I describe to my vaguely interested teenagers (‘why would anyone want to hear you talk for 25 minutes?’) as being about ‘the way forward’. So I could forget notes and simply wander around the stage gliding from point to point and adlibbing with references to current issues or the place where I am speaking. These are the speeches I enjoy most and which seem to go down best (although I am often disconcerted by how little of what I think I have said has actually been taken in).
Sometimes I get a very clear brief for a speech, which is always welcome. More often I am surprised by how laid back the hosts are. If I was being big-headed I would say this is because everyone knows I will do a good turn. But I think it is down to the strange imbalance between the care organisations put into the logistics of conferences and the limited attention paid to the content. Because it is very little to do with me, I am not being arrogant when I say that the RSA is an organisation that takes content very seriously in all its events.
It may be surprising to hear that on the whole I find the organisers of fee paying conferences to be more negligent about content than those running free events. Normally I guess one would expect the reverse. Maybe it’s because the motivation for charging conferences is purely financial while free events are more likely to be driven by a wider sense of purpose.
Haven spoken at too many dispiriting public sector events, last year I pitched an idea to the Guardian to write an article about the opportunity costs involved when 250 taxpayer funded middle mangers pay £300 each to attend a largely pointless conference. But as the Guardian makes money out of such conferences I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that it got turned down. I think I’ll try The Times instead.
Then, of course, there is the question of jokes. My speciality as regular readers of this blog (how you doing, mum?) will know is self deprecating anecdotes. Being a bit of an arse there is never a shortage of those to relate.