Manner of Speaking: The Speech or the Speaker?

Manner of Speaking: The Speech or the Speaker?

Hold onto your audience with both hands!

By Gene Perret

Photo Caption: The author, Gene Perret, has a captive audience
during Toastmasters 2005 Convention in Toronto.

Which is more important to a presentation – the speech or the speaker? Do the words make for a forceful lecture, or is it the way the words are delivered?

Once an actor in a television series I had written asked me a similar question. He said, “Do you think your script is more important than the actors who deliver the lines?”

I told him I had been writing television comedy for many years and I had never once written a funny line. He was a bit skeptical about that response, so I explained that none of my jokes were funny simply sitting on paper. They didn’t generate laughter until some performer spoke the words and breathed life into them. Playwrights need skilled actors to perform their lines; actors need plot, conflict, clever or witty dialogue to keep an audience interested in the performance.

Asking whether the message or the messenger is more momentous is like asking which hand is more significant when you applaud – the right or the left. Obviously, it’s the teamwork of both that produces a welcome ovation. It’s the same with a persuasive lecture. The message should be well conceived, well organized, and well written, but it must also be delivered passionately and skillfully.

To illustrate this point, when I speak on comedy writing I’ll often ask some person in the audience to name a favorite comedian. Let’s imagine that person says, “Robin Williams.” Then I’ll ask another who we’ll assume responds, “Joan Rivers.” Next I present a fantasy. I tell the audience that this evening I’m going to treat all of them to a visit to two nightclubs. First we’ll watch Robin Williams perform and then we’ll catch Joan Rivers’ show. (I do caution them that even though this is a fantasy, I will still limit them to a maximum of two drinks.)

I caution them further, though, that we are going to have a miserable evening. Why? Because before we go to see these performances, I will take Joan’s material and give it to Robin Williams. Then I’ll take Robin’s act and present it to Joan Rivers. Both shows will be disastrous. Both Robin and Joan are brilliant comedians. Both of them have funny, professional routines. But neither one of them will be entertaining doing the other person’s material.

The point of this fantasy is that the material and the comedian should blend. The act should suit the performer. A speech should be well constructed, but also tailored perfectly to the speaker.

Following are some hints to help you tailor a speech to your speaking style and create a presentation that will generate the right hand – left hand cooperation needed to produce sincere applause.

Be sure to say what you want to say. The content of your speech should be something that you personally agree with. It’s difficult to speak with conviction about a notion that hasn’t won your heart.

Once I worked with the great comedian and not-so-great violinist, Jack Benny. My partner and I had written a small bit that Benny was to do on our variety show. Benny called and told us he loved the material, but wanted to discuss it with us before he would agree to appear on the show. When we met with him, he wanted to know why he was doing this particular piece. We explained our reasoning. He didn’t accept that. We suggested another reason. He remained unconvinced.

Mr. Benny had a logical argument against any reason we presented. Finally, his representative said, “Jack, it’s only a three-minute bit. Why don’t you just do it the way it’s written?” Benny said, “How many times do I have to tell you that when I’m doing a joke about my Stradivarius, I have to be holding my Stradivarius.” He was saying that he had to believe in any joke he did. For him, that was the only way to do justice to the comedy material. As a speaker, you will be much more credible and more effective if you talk about ideas you believe in.

Make your speech compatible with your speaking style and platform presence. I worked for many years for a great platform professional, Bob Hope. He performed at state dinners at the White House, at royal banquets before kings and queens. He was funny, but he always spoke with dignity and class. Consequently, any one-liners we wrote for Bob Hope had to conform with that stature he presented behind the microphone.

Many comedians present a wacky, zany, goofy stage presence. That’s perfectly fine, so long as it’s funny. However, the contrast should be obvious. Bob Hope’s style demanded a certain type of material; the zany comics demand another.

You have a unique style as a speaker. Whatever speeches you create should mesh with your individual mode of speaking.

Limit yourself to material you can deliver competently. All of us have limitations. The late Don Knotts created one of the finest characters in television history – Deputy Barney Fife. Don was a skilled actor, yet you wouldn’t cast him as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. Tony Bennett is an acclaimed vocalist, yet you would walk out if he started strutting around the stage like Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones. Professional performers know enough to do what they do well.

We all have our skills and our shortcomings. The trick is to highlight your talents and hide your failings. I’ve worked with many legendary entertainers, people who are noted for being “so versatile, they can do anything.” You’d be surprised how often material had to be rewritten because these stars who “could do anything,” said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t do this well.”

It’s not a weakness; it’s a strength. It’s common sense to present to an audience only what you can competently perform.

Be honest about your own talents. Know what you can do effectively and what you can’t. Then give yourself a speech that makes you look good…no, let’s make that brilliant.

Remember, once you step onto the podium, it’s no longer the speech that is being evaluated, nor is it the speaker. It’s the combination of both. The presentation is what will get the ovation.

Gene Perret has won several Emmys for his work on The Carol Burnett Show. He was Bob Hope’s head writer for 12 years and has written many books about humor. Contact him at