olivia colman

Olivia Colman Snivels in Front of 30m TV Audience

Olivia Colman is a wonderful actress, I have huge respect for her and make a point of watching anything with her name attached. But I am deeply disappointed that she did such a pathetic speech at the Oscars.

I understand this is an occasion of very high emotion but given that she was one of the favourites to win best actress, there was always a good chance she was going to have to make the winners speech.

Surely, a little bit of forethought would have been a good idea – ensuring that she was a bit more comfortable on stage and her audience was a bit more entertained by her words.

What Can We Learn From Colman’s Performance?

As ever I am not really commenting on Olivia Colman herself, one could argue she does not need my advice. But I do think there are some clear takeaway lessons.

Think About the Practical Aspects of Any Outfit!

First things first, it might be a good idea, as a woman, if you know you might have to go on stage, to think about the dress. Perhaps, as a result of one or two of her roles, Ms Colman has fallen in love with the very full ball gown style. But that together with the train made mounting the stage somewhat inelegant. For business women rather than film stars, there are other considerations. If you are climbing up onto the stage anywhere, you might want to give consideration to just how much leg you want to show. I have been criticised for saying this before but there is a reason why Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel always wear trouser suits. I commented on the dangers of showing a lot of leg in a previous blog here.

Prepare a Few Points

However, more important than the outfit, would it not have been a good idea to prepare a few words and even jot them down. This is probably not right for the Oscars: I can see it might have been a bit presumptuous for Colman to whip out a speech but in most other circumstances this would be a completely normal thing to do.

Reading a script is a bad idea. Unless you are trained it will be very difficult to get the inflections right. Better for most people to adlib around a few bullet points.

A Long List of Thanks is Dull and Risky

There is a particular difficulty in thanking people. It is very difficult to make a long list of people you want to thank interesting and the danger of missing people out, particularly if you haven’t prepared the list, is huge. My advice is to think long and hard before heading into an Oscar-style thank you list – ask yourself if there is a better way. Perhaps a story that illustrates how much help you needed along the way and a more general or blanket thanks – or just an expression of gratitude. It would be a lot less boring to listen to.

Shedding a Tear in Public is Good, Snivelling is Not So Good

Emotion is good in a speech but in most cultures not too much. Clearly, it can be difficult to control but it would help to think about how you want to come across before you get there. I personally hope I am never caught snivelling in front of an audience of 30 million. If you are with me I suggest in emotional settings, set yourself a clearly articulated communication ‘style goal’ and role-play it in the bathroom.

Quit With the Raspberries

Finally, call me old fashioned, but I am not in favour of blowing raspberries at the organisers who are trying to keep a long and complicated evening running on time.


writing a speech

Writing a Speech – Forget Good Grammar

Writing a speech? There are some tips to be gleaned by reading two high profile speeches delivered late last week. Both the Chancellor, Philip Hammond and the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney gave their annual Mansion House speech to city grandees. Here I am not going to comment on the substance of the speeches – you can see mainstream coverage here and here – but instead I am pulling out a couple of tips for writing a speech or – importantly – any script.

writing a speech

Philip Hammond made the Chancellor’s annual Mansion House speech last week and there were a lot of very short sentences.

I am prompted to do this because both the Treasury and the Bank of England publish important speeches, so it is simple to read them online, making them a useful resource.

Remember the bulk of each of these speeches will have been written by professional speech writers. (This is probably not their job title but much of the substance of the speech will have been provided by someone other than the person delivering it. It is usual for early drafts to be discussed and commented on and the final draft tweaked by the deliverer.)

The crucial thing to understand, when writing something that will be read aloud, is that you need to use ‘spoken English’ not ‘written English’. You can usefully forget much of what you were taught in school about good sentence structure and paragraphs.

You can find Philip Hammond’s speech here.

Short sentences or even fragments can be effective

The key thing that stands out for me – reading rather than hearing the Chancellor’s speech – is the, often, very short sentences.

The good news is that we build on strong foundations.
Britain’s economy is fundamentally sound.
Unemployment is at a 40-year low, and employment is at a record high.
Real wages are, at last, beginning to rise.
Last year investment spending grew at the fastest rate in the G7.
And goods exports grew by over 7%.
But there is no room for any complacency.

The writer sensibly does not keep up this staccato style all the way through but instead mixes it in with longer more complicated sentences. Listeners would get bored if the pattern is repeated too much but, used intermittently, it has the benefit of being very clear, and very easy to deliver.

Secondly, some of Hammond’s short sentences are technically not sentences at all. Take this snippet.

But, (the Prime Minister) also confirmed we will stick to our fiscal rules.
And will continue to reduce debt.
So, as the Prime Minister said, taxpayers will have to contribute a bit more, in a fair and balanced way, to support the NHS we all use.
While delivering on our fiscal commitments

If you were an English teacher you would want to put red marks all over this, introduce some commas or colons and correct those capital letters. But this is not a document, it is a script and the rules are different.

Here is Mark Carney’s speech.

Writing a Speech: Use the dash

writing a speech

Mark Carney’s script for this year’s Mansion House dinner made liberal use of dashes.

The Bank of England Governor has a different style with longer sentences. But his speech writer makes liberal use of dashes.

As here:

That includes hard infrastructure – from liquidity facilities to payments architecture – and soft infrastructure – from the rule of law to up-to-date codes of conduct and effective regulatory frameworks.

I remember an early news editor at Radio Norfolk complaining about my use of dashes in a news story I had written that she had to read on air. She had a long history as a print journalist and railed against the youngsters who took a relaxed view of punctuation. I still think I was right. Dashes are more useful to the performer than commas.

At The Media Coach, we run special training courses for some clients who are using scripts and even autocue to produce videos for the web. Nearly always, a key reason why these brave people are not sounding as good as they would like, is that the script they are working with is not a script at all – but something that reads like an internal document. It’s the wrong style.

Writing a Speech: Say it aloud first

So how do you work out how to write a script?

Well, a good place to start is: say it aloud first. To see this in action watch Gary Oldman’s depiction of Churchill in last year’s film, The Darkest Hour. Churchill wrote his own speeches. But actually, as we see in the film, he didn’t write: he famously dictated speeches to his secretary Elizabeth Layton. These days we don’t have someone taking dictation but you can still speak first and then write down what you say.

And of course to check it works you need to read it aloud…not in your head.

Writing a Speech: 6 top tips

To summarise here are my 6 top tips
1. As with all professional communication be clear on your audience and your objective.
2. Write in plain English and avoid jargon, even for specialist audiences.
3. Write in short sentences. Don’t be afraid to use some very short sentences.
4. Use more paragraphs. Break up your prose, usually just 2 or 3 sentences per paragraph but one sentence or fragment is fine.
5. If you (or the person delivering the script) are reading from paper rather than autocue, set wide margins: give the eye less distance to travel across the page. The reader is less likely to lose their place.
6. Say it first, then write it, then read it aloud to check it works.

If you want to read other tips from me on speech writing, I last looked at this in a blog a couple of years ago and you can read that here.


Six things professional speech writers know

Six things professional speech writers know and the rest of us don’t

Six things professional speech writers know and the rest of us don’t – is a post prompted by the uproar surrounding passages of Melania Trump’s speech to the opening night of the Republican National Convention.

Many people it seems, thought chunks of the speech had been lifted almost word for word from one delivered by Michelle Obama in 2008.

Six things professional speech writers know

Donald and Melania Trump

The resulting coverage has thrown light on some on the rarely seen backstage manoeuvrings behind political jamborees.

It was also a surprise reminder that plagiarism in speech writing is frowned upon (but rarely illegal).

Six things professional speech writers know: plagiarism is easily done

A trawl of the cuttings around this particular incident highlighted the fact that two speechwriters, Matthew Scully and John McConnell, submitted an early draft of the speech to the campaign a month before the convention. This is evidence of impressive planning. The fact that they heard nothing back for a long time and that another writer, Meredith McIver, worked on the speech with the want-to-be first lady is evidence of the competitive jockeying for influence between the advisers of those who may be on their way to the top.

McIver says that she wanted to inspire Melania Trump, and this included reading her passages from Michelle Obama’s speech in 2008. McIver took responsibility for the mistake and offered to resign. An offer that was not accepted. It is doubtful whether she actually wrote the offending passages or did more than provide them as an example to the third Mrs. Trump.

We also learnt from the coverage of this story, that the chances of a 16-word match in a speech being just a coincidence are less than one in a trillion – this according to a website called is a subscription service that helps students with revision and checks their work for (presumably accidental) plagiarism. Who knew? In the age of the internet, plagiarism is a big issue in academia and is regularly checked for. Professional speechwriters apparently use this or similar software to ensure they have not inadvertently repeated something they have heard before.

Here are six other things that professional speechwriters know that the rest of us are not aware of.

Six things professional speech writers know: it’s an emotional journey

Six things professional speech writers know: write as you speak

  • Write as you speak, not in written English. This is a classic mistake we see at The Media Coach all the time. Written English has a different style to spoken English, if you are writing a speech it must be written to speak aloud. So don’t write: ‘It is an exceptionally beautiful and joyous day’ but instead ‘It’s a really lovely, happy day’. ‘It is’ becomes ‘it’s’ and ‘beautiful and joyous’ becomes the simpler ‘lovely and happy’. Keep sentences short and write in pauses so the speaker gives the words of the script time to land. If you are not sure, try reading aloud what you have written, and see if it sounds natural.

Six things professional speech writers know: tricolons rock

  • Tricolons are one of the most effective and widely used rhetoric devices. The technical definition of a tricolon is: a rhetorical term for a series of three parallel words, phrases or clauses. For example “I came, I saw, I conquered”. “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I learn” Here is a piece about President Obama’s use of tricolons.

Six things professional speech writers know: repetition is good

  • Repetition in all its forms is very useful in speech writing. It will often give rhythm to a speech as well as drum home the most important points. The obvious example here is Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. He uses the word ‘dream’ 11 times in nine paragraphs of the speech. Donald Trump has a particularly repetitive style of speech as noted in this blog.
Six things professional speech writers know

Martin Luther King used repetition successfully in his ‘I have a dream’ speech

Six things professional speech writers know: end with a bang

  • End with a bang. This may be a call to action for example, as overly optimistic Liberal leader David Steel did in 1981 when he said:  “Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government”. Or it may be a benediction “May the force be with you” or “God bless America”. It can be the title of your talk or it can be a grand theme that provokes a big idea as in Winston Churchill’s address to the nation in the face of the threat of invasion.“Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that if the British Commonwealth and Empire lasts for thousands of years, men will say: ‘This was their finest hour.”

Six things professional speech writers know: narrow columns

  • And finally, print your speech in large type and with narrow columns. This is much easier to read aloud than trying to read across the width of a page. Television scripts are laid out on one side of the page only, originally for this reason. The example below uses block capitals but the normal use of upper- and lower case is easier to read.
  • Six things professional speech writers know

    Television scripts are laid out on one side of the page only to make them easier to read

    Photo Credits: All photos are used under Creative Comms licences.