How to Write a Killer Speech (for Zoom)

It’s not every day you get invited to take part in a radio discussion about public speaking, with the lead singer from Urban Cookie Collective.

But that’s what happened to me on Monday.

The topic of the show, broadcast on BBC Essex, was how speaking to groups of people has changed, since we’ve all been forced online.  How do you write a father-of-the-bride speech, or keep people engaged on a work presentation, when each member of your audience is effectively listening in from another room?

I was drafted in to discuss the speechwriting element, with the how-to-do-the-actual-talking bits covered by Danielle Barnett (she of Urban Cookie Collective, and now a transformation coach), and Nicky Browne of The Mighty Oak, an organisation that teaches public speaking in schools.

As is my wont, I assiduously prepared for my part of the discussion, writing copious notes about how to write words for an online audience, as well as rooting out a selection of illustrative examples.  

But since the host (inconsiderately, in my opinion) let his other guests talk as well, I didn’t get to share everything I prepared.  

So, I’m sharing it here, instead.  

A Zoom talk means speaking directly into people’s homes…

…which, in turn, means that everything you say will take on a personal hue.

When I worked in HR, colleagues would get upset about their managers suddenly sending them terse, overly critical emails when they chose to work from home.

In reality, the tone of these emails hadn’t changed.  What had was the environment in which they were being read.  A slightly brusque email from the boss might be OK in the professional context of the office, but at home it’s a personal affront.

What this means for your speech, is that as far as possible, you should try to word it as though you’re talking to one person, rather than a group.  

I would also advise not memorising your speech, in the way you might if you were speaking in front of a large group.  Use headline notes instead, and speak around them so you sound as natural as possible.  Ultra-formality is ultra-off-putting online. 

Use humour with caution

Be careful about adding jokes, as you may not be able to hear whether or not people are laughing… which can throw you – and your audience – off.

(I watched an online stand-up comedy gig during Lockdown 1.0, which the comedian clearly found challenging because he wasn’t getting any audience reaction to his material.  As a viewer, I also found it unexpectedly uncomfortable in places.  Laughing along with others at a joke some might find offensive is all part of the fun when you’re at a rowdy comedy club; at home on your own it feels deranged.)

The lack of instant feedback means you’ll need to be extra-confident about what you’re saying, so that old adage about understanding your message before you write your speech takes on even more importance.  

Boiling down the essence of your speech to one simple sentence will help… and if you can’t do that, why are you speaking at all?

Your audience is going to get distracted, so keep it short and memorable

Instead of playing to a captive audience in one room, you’re now dealing with a diverse array of at-home distractions…

…from interruptive children and barking dogs, to doorbells ringing unexpectedly and loud TV noise from the room next door.

That’s why you have to make your speech as short, snappy, and as memorable as you can.  

To do this, use clear, simple language that creates “word pictures”, as Winston Churchill once said (“we shall fight them on the beaches” and ‘iron curtain’ are his own excellent examples), and if you want people to take action on anything you’ve said, summarise it at the end.  

Think of the government’s ‘Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives’ slogan.  It tells us what we’ve got to do, even if we can’t – or don’t want to – listen to the daily briefings.

“When the content’s right, the confidence will follow” (Philip Collins, former speechwriter to Tony Blair)

Wherever you’re performing your speech, working on your words to the point where you can’t wait to say them will help you sound positive and confident, as well as making it more likely that you’ll finish on a high.

Over and out.

Sign up to get
exclusive news...