“This speech will blow them away!”

I foolishly thought these words as I stepped on stage, dreaming of a standing ovation.

This dream began to shatter as I stared at a hundred blank faces, and my legs started to shake. 

The seconds felt like minutes as sweat beaded on my brow and my voice struggled to ignite, like a car on a winter’s day. 

“They’re angry…”

I thought fearfully as I clutched my written speech with sweaty palms. The paper had a life of its own, the words had turned to alphabet soup. 

I looked up and realised I’d been standing there silently for what seemed like an eternity. I had to say something, anything. What was my speech about again?

…To my surprise, and everyone else’s, I shouted:

“HOMELESS PEOPLE WILL DIE!”

This created a small chuckle, which grew into a wave of laughter which threatened to drown me in embarrassment. This wasn’t a humorous speech. It was meant to be serious. A speech with meaning, something inspirational. 

I had been asked to deliver a speech – my first speech – to an audience that demanded entertainment. 

I was told that I could do a simple reading, but no, not me. If I was going to speak publicly I wanted to do something special. 

So, I took the bold decision to motivate my audience. 

My aim was to reframe the Christmas experience – being with family, receiving and giving gifts, eating a banquet until too full to move, the happy times we take for granted – and instead show them a different but real side of Christmas; one of loneliness, hunger, and despair that the homeless people living in Britain suffer each year.

But, through a combination of fear and confusion I had just shouted:

“HOMELESS PEOPLE WILL DIE!” 

Now my audience had a completely different idea of my intentions.

They didn’t know that I had forgotten my introduction, or all of the stories that I had built up over the months of fretting and preparation, or the conclusion that I had diligently woven together through all of my solid arguments and carefully curated statistics. 

Without another word, I’d had enough. I turned and walked back to my seat looking more monstrous than motivational. 

“Did he just threaten to kill homeless people?”

The audience must have asked themselves as I slumped into my seat, wanting the world to swallow me.

That memory stays with me 20 years later every time I walk to the stage. I remember that sweaty, nervous monster that took control of me that day.

Write it; read it.

Many new speakers fall into the trap of write it; read it. 

When asked to deliver a presentation or speech, instead of writing the speech, editing the content and then rehearsing over a long duration, they will go on social media, walk the dog, take on a new construction project… anything but practice the speech.

Procrastination is a speech killer. 

Even if given months to prepare, many will wake up on the day that the speech is due and start to write it and read it but this will lead down only one route: shouting something like:

“HOMELESS PEOPLE WILL DIE” in front of an amused, but very confused audience.

If you want to avoid dieing on stage don’t procrastinate, practice

Small steps…

It’s difficult to know how you will feel in front of your first real live audience. Most of us will feel some level of anxiety. 

You need to learn the skill of speaking in front of others before you speak in front of others. 

Don’t do as I did and feel sure you can just wing it. Your legs and nerves will not come along for the ride unless you practice.

When preparing a speech you should first rehearse out loud (not in your head) as you need to hear your projection and tonality, you need to hear how the words sound to the ear.

Next practice with an experienced coach to gather feedback. Initially you’ll need to ‘fake it until you make it’ – but only by practicing in front of a fake audience. 

Invite some friends and family over to be your test audience. There is no substitute for real-time reactions to the words you say and stories you tell, but be sure to encourage your friends and family to be honest with their feedback. 

At Project Charisma we always give honest feedback and support. You won’t get the answers you want to hear, but you will get the answers you NEED to hear.

Whether you’re preparing for a motivational speech, a business pitch, a university presentation, or just want to feel comfortable speaking in front others, our workshops can help.

Substance over style

The reason I failed on that stage all those years ago was because of my need to impress my audience. I was a big Tony Robbins fan and I simply wanted to “be like him”. 

Don’t try to emulate anyone else or impress your audience with your style. Focus on getting the substance right to begin with. The style will come later.

Having a simple speech with one clear message can actually be more powerful than a complex story about Christmas and homelessness. 

A simple speech can easily be learned which allows you to focus on your delivery, making sure you speak with clarity.

Once you know the content your focus can be on your body language, tonality, gestures, stage presence – all the key skills of professional public speakers. 

So for your first speech. Keep it small and simple, practice, practice, and practice some more in front of other people and give yourself plenty of build up time.

Remember procrastination is a speech killer. So get to work!


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My First Speech

Danny Riley

A corporate trainer, award-winning speaker, TEDx Speaker coach, and Distinguished Toastmaster. Danny designs and delivers Leadership Development Programmes as well as coaching professional speakers. He is a Chartered Manager, a member of the CIPD, and dedicates his life to developing executives who want to deliver more persuasive pitches and presentations.

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My First Speech
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