The story of my first (and greatest) speech

Oxford Brookes Students' Union Freshers' Handbook 1993 The Last Edition TLE

My illustration for the front cover of the Freshers’ Handbook, 1993

I don’t recall how it came about, whether I volunteered or was chosen, but at age eight, there I was, my first solo performance in front of a large audience (the whole school).

I was performing a song about the Venerable Bede, dressed in character as the Venerable Bede, or rather in a costume made out of a black bin liner with string tied around my waist. My Dad had made a little gold harp out of balsa wood for me to hold. The only nerves I had about my world premiere, which were slight, were directly connected to me hoping I got it right and remembered all the words. I just wanted it to work.

Since then I’ve never been fazed by performing in public. Not only that, I wanted to seek it out. When my younger brother was to appear on the school stage as Shakin’ Stevens (singing ‘This Ole House’) but was too nervous last minute to do it, I went on with him to give him confidence. (I was ten.)

But they weren’t speeches. And although I’d performed hundreds of times with my guitar, in bands, doing comedy, I was 22 before I gave my first, proper ‘speech’.

I’d been voted into the Students’ Union as Communications Officer. This was in an age before emails, before texts. The best method anyone had ever used to get a message across up until this point was by doing a poster (and they were of course in black and white).

But I took the concept of the ‘communications’ part of the role to heart and became fascinated about how public performance didn’t just entertain, but was also the most effective way of getting over certain types of information. The type of information that can be transmitted by a personal presentation is that which instructs an audience to think about something or actually do something.

I knew about entertaining. But what about informational content? How do you get that over?

So when I had to give that first speech to Freshers about why they should get involved in the Students’ Union, I knew there were a few facts I had to consider:

1. There were 1000 of them, who had been queueing all day during the long enrolment process. The Students’ Union part of their tiring tour was their last stop

2. They would enter the lecture theatre that I had as my stage in five batches of 200. I would have around seven minutes with them. I would have no slides, no overhead projector, no PowerPoint (it didn’t exist)

3. They would more than likely be bored, tired, nervous and would have never heard of a Students’ Union or know anything about what it had to offer

4. My goal was to get them to contribute to the Students’ Union magazine which I edited.

So that set the scene. I had to deliver a speech that took those facts into consideration, which gave me these conclusions, based on the above points:

1. I would have to be entertaining and different to grab their attention

2. I would have to be clear and succinct. There was no time for endless data

3. I would have to make one clear, actionable point

4. I would have to engage them on an emotional level, to make them feel that they had to contribute for a positive emotional reason and that they felt safe to do so.

What I didn’t realise at the time was that I had not only worked out the four most important points for my first ever proper talk, but I’d created a blueprint for every talk I would ever give. I certainly didn’t realise that what I’d worked out from first principles was also the template for every great speech ever made by anyone (ignorance and modesty would prevent me from realising that until now).

So what did I do?

As soon as the first batch of 200 were seated, I jumped up onto a desk that was at the front of the room and I asked a frightened bunch of eighteen year olds,

“What am I doing up here?”

There was on course no answer likely to be forthcoming, so I went on.

“By next week you will have forgotten almost everything anyone told you today. But you will remember the idiot who stood on the table.

“You’ll remember me because I stood out, did something unusual, unexpected.

“Most of you in this room will, in three years time, get a degree. Most of you will then apply for a job along with everyone else from every other university in the land. The employer won’t be patting you on the back because you have a degree, begging you to take the position because everyone will have the same kind of qualification. What they’ll be looking for will be for something else. What else has this person done? What else are they capable of? What makes them different? What makes them stand out?”

I sold them on the idea that getting involved in student societies was the key to creating that difference. And of course the easiest way for them to get involved in something big was for them to contribute to my magazine.

Prior to me taking the position, the student paper had just eight pages with eight people having written for it (and about eight people read it).

By the time I had delivered that talk five times that afternoon, our new magazine, The Last Edition (TLE), became Britain’s biggest contributed to student magazine. We had 38 pages (16 issues a year) with around 60 contributors in each issue, contributing all sorts of things.

I asked one contributor why he had come forward after the talk. He said that he was the sort of person who never got involved in anything and considered himself far too shy. But seeing me on the table made him feel able to climb the foreboding stairs to the offices and hand in his poem to be published. I made him the poetry editor. Then he became my deputy. Then when my two years in the job were over (you could only be voted in twice), he became editor. And of course he’s still a great friend.

I’d learnt that every speech is a motivational speech. You can’t use a talk for the transmission of data, you have to move them into thinking and doing.

So when I have to give a talk today, and want to make it effective, I look back at those four points and try to stick to them.

I think you should give them a go too.

This is just one of the key areas of my presentation skills training programme, called Magnetic Communication. It’s about using your creativity to design and deliver a speech that works, especially for scientific and technical talks with high content and data which are often perceived as the hardest to make compelling.

I promise you it can be done.

Magnetic communication presentation skills trainingIf you’re in a scientific or technical organisation, you might like to take a look at this masterclass about this topic, available as in-house training as well as for CEO groups.

Ayd works with people and businesses to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation.

Book Ayd to deliver a presentation masterclass in your organisation or to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference.

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6 comments on “The story of my first (and greatest) speech

  1. Yeah, remember that time well – The TLE had been the preserve of a very intimidating clique before that and you really threw it open to all and sundry to see their name in print for the first time; me included and I’ve done various sorts of writing ever since. Remember helping you devise the Oxford board game that went in the first issue and a certain amount of ‘toff-baiting’ in its content. Happy days.


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