9 tips for speaking at Liberal Democrat conference

Mark Pack speaking at Lib Dem conference. Moving a constitutional amendment, of course.
Moving a constitutional amendment, of course.

With the latest Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth coming up soon, here are some tips for would-be new, and indeed, experienced, speakers at party conference.

Doubtless, others will have good advice to add to what’s in this list, so do comment away at the end, or indeed ask any questions.

1. Time your speech and aim to undershoot

The conference paperwork details how long the speeches can be for each part of conference. Getting your planned comments down to comfortably less than the time limit is doubly beneficial.

First, it means you can relax and force yourself to slow down rather than getting into the sort of rushed gallop to finish every-last-word-you-wanted-to-say which ends up making for a badly delivered speech.

Second, the risk is all one-way. Finish under your time and no-one really notices (save for a grateful debate chair and aide, who may well remember your ability to keep to time when deciding who to call in the future). Over-run, lots of people notice and you get cut off.

2. Prepare your first and last sentences

Some people work best off full scripts, others off brief notes. Whatever works for you, ensure you have the exact wording memorised of your first and last sentences.

Why? Because the first sets the mood of the audience and the last is what sets their memories. Deliver those two well and you buy yourself a lot of scope for variability without damage in-between.

3. Don’t rush to the podium

You will know at least one speech in advance that you are going to be called to speak. That is the time to head down to the front. You will find there are seats reserved for waiting speakers near the steps up to the podium.

This means that when you are called to speak you only have a few steps forward to take, so you can also take them in a slow, relaxed manner to calm yourself down before speaking, rather than running from the back of the hall and doing the opposite.

There are also conference stewards on hand to help anyone with mobility issues, such as if you need to use the lift to get up to the platform in a wheelchair or have impaired vision.

Conference audiences are good at being patient about someone getting to the speaking location so if you have to take a few extra moments to get there, don’t worry and don’t rush.

4. Don’t touch the microphones

They are set-up to catch the voices of people from all sorts of heights. You don’t need to adjust them.

All you will do is make yukky noises for everyone in the hall, risk putting them out of position for yourself and take a punt on messing things up for the next person who has your botched handiwork to live with.

Just don’t touch them. You don’t need to adjust them.

5. Start with ‘thank you <name of chair>’

Again, a simple little device which gives the sound engineers the change to ensure they have got the microphones up and working at the right levels. It also gives you a moment to collect yourself, look around and in particular…

6. Check where the amber/red lights are

These warning lights are used to indicate that you have one minute left and then that you are out of time.

Until you have been up there and missed the lights it can seem bizarre that anyone would fail to notice where they are. But even though there are usually slap bang in front of you on the podium and also in comfortable eye-line in the hall if you look up, with everything else going on it’s quite easy to miss where they are.

I’ve been up to podium, spoken and back down again without ever noticing where the lights on the podium were. (They were there: I checked afterwards.)

7. Decide what to do with your legs

The podium can seem quite substantial when you are stood at it, but almost always it is pretty thin, leaving much of the hall with a fairly decent view of most of you. That means nervous tapping of feet and shifting of legs gets noticed and can easily be distracting.

Of course, moving your upper body around a little, especially the head and the hands makes for a better delivery. But the further you go down, the stiller you should stay, whatever posture you pick.

8. Have someone film you

The more someone hates the idea of watching themselves speak, the more beneficial they usually find it if they eventually do.

You can watch the clip in private, hiding behind the sofa if you want. And oh my, there’s one speech I gave it makes me flinch even now just thinking about watching. Thank goodness records of that one are buried even more securely that that Nick Clegg song video.

But watching yourself back is a quite brilliant way to learn how to be better, and everyone can be better at speaking than they are currently.

9. Get someone to give you honest feedback

Speaking of which, supportive but honest feedback from a trusted colleague is also a must. I’ve often noticed, both at Liberal Democrat conference and elsewhere, how the friends of someone who has given a mediocre speech often are all positive about it. That’s a good side to being a friend immediately after a speech. In the long run, however, it’s not all of what being a friend is about. Failing to help steer someone towards getting better at what they do isn’t a true act of friendship. It’s a failure of friendship.

And with that… good luck!

P. S. Do remember not to use someone else’s speech notes.

For more on how to give a great speech, whether at conference or not, see this classic TV documentary.

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4 responses to “9 tips for speaking at Liberal Democrat conference”

  1. Strange things can happen:
    My best ever speech was as a teenager presenting a technical paper at a learned gathering. It could have been a disaster. The original speaker chickened out and thrust his copious notes 4 me to read out. I took the podium, and requested “1st Slide Please” rendering the note in darkness! I could not read his notes at all. Compelled to ad lib in darkness, with good slides to present, it was my best ever.

    But the most awe-inspiring presentation I have ever witnessed was by Rick Parker. On requesting “1st Slide Please” the projector blew so no slides to view. Gamely, Rick grabbed the pointer, marched down to the blank screen, and vividly said “OK on the 1st slide – as you can so clearly see….” And so his masterly speech continued, and ended to rapturous applause

  2. Great tips on speeches
    You need to cover how to get called in the first place. Pointless having a good speech unless you are called. Few are called and many are frozen (out).
    The answer seems to be , be PPC for the winnable seat of Middle of Nowhere Central where we have just seized control of the Parish Council, or be one of the great and the good e.g. Chair of the Mangleworzle Industry Working Party.
    Forgive the hilarity . My only call was in 1977 (CE not BCE) on an obscure amendment on tax that the audience didn’t comprehend anyway so little competition! The Chair was grateful to have anybody who knew how many tax beans made three.

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