Spectator: Lucy Baring on speaking in public

We have just been to a birthday party where two speeches were made. Delivered with excellent comic timing, blending humour with affection, they were of such high quality that they brought the house down. Crucially, neither speaker was too good: a fellow guest described a speech he’d witnessed days before that was so slick it made everyone feel as if they’d been oiled by the end. Inevitably, people began to discuss personal highs and lows of public speaking. I kept pretty quiet.

Once, sitting around a full table with about 11 others, we were all invited, spontaneously, to say a few words about our host-like a Quaker meeting, but less optional. Everyone seemed able to whip out a couple of one-liners without missing a beat. I could barely find a voice in which to simply toast the man-who happened to be my brother.

Otherwise, I have only made one speech, the ghost of which haunts me still. It came when I was chosen by neighbours to explain our collective objection to a planning application. I spent much time crafting a watertight, blindingly compelling argument that could take no longer than four minutes and timed myself to within a second of this. When called before the committee, the chairman glanced up to say that, as cases were overrunning, ‘you’ve only got two minutes’.

In the film of my life, I would, at this point, have become Erin Brockovich, who thought on her feet and won one of the largest lawsuits in American legal history. She/I would tear up the A4 bits of paper with a lively flourish and, head up, shoulders back, would perfectly precis the argument: ‘There are only three things I need to say…’ There would then be a standing ovation. I think it’s clear I’ve rerun this event many times in my head.

Unfortunately, I chose the alternative route. I read the thing in double-quick time without breathing and sounded as if I’d inhaled helium. Thank heavens I’ll never have to be a best man. Zam always cries within minutes of standing up to speak-no matter who or what the subject is. He thinks this is because of a poetry recital at school, when he was so nervous (partly because he hadn’t learnt the poem) that he unwittingly spent the performance with his hand in his trouser pocket, fidgeting in a way that the master took to be deliberately crude. He had no idea he was doing it, and was hauled off the stage. Between us, public speaking is not our forte.

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So when I opened an email on behalf of another friend with a birthday coming up, I closed it again immediately. As did Zam. Could all guests film themselves making a short contribution to a surprise film to be shown after dinner? My sister-in-law was on the telephone in an instant. Equally filled with dread at this idea, but recognising that it was compulsory, she suggested we do it together. So we perched in front of our daughters as they waved mobile (video) phones at us, and sent the effort to the film-maker. She replied saying that only a fraction of it can have traversed cyberspace to her computer, as it seemed terribly short.

As the dinner approaches, I’m increasingly worried. The film’s subject is not only a natural at public speaking, but also counts a number of actors and actresses among her friends. The short film will, therefore, be full of people who actually like being in front of the camera, followed by two tiny figures (neither daughter managed a close-up) mumbling incoherently about ferrets.  

Wondering if I’d missed some simple trick to improve our contribution, I searched online and came across this piece of advice: say what you’re going to say three times. First, tell the audience what you’re going to say, then say it and, finally, tell them you’ve said it. I’ve sat next to people at dinner who seem to follow this edict,and it’s a very long meal. I’ll never be an orator, but, in this instance, I should relax I doubt we’ll make the final cut.

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