This week I gave a 20 minute keynote presentation to a speechwriting conference in Vilnius in Lithuania via Zoom from a studio in Southampton, England.
I’d really wanted to travel, but to do so meant taking a covid test 72 hours before departure. That involves using a private clinic at a cost of about £400 with no guarantee I would get the results in time.
I had to share the bad news with the organiser of the conference. Look on the bright side, I said, here was a chance for me, a speechwriter, to experience what it’s like for a speaker to deliver one of these digital presentations.
I’ve already written one for a CEO. We speechwriters will be writing many more in the coming months. Here’s my chance to share an experience with the delegates.
I had a 30 minute slot (20 mins followed by 10 mins of questions).
10 days before the conference I wrote my first draft. I did three or four drafts in the interim before I felt happy. Which left me with a 2,400 word script. I read it aloud several times as a way to edit it and familiarise myself with the content.
As with all speaking opportunities, I asked myself, do I try to memorise the whole thing? Or do I have the script in front of me and read from it, looking up at regular intervals.
Since this was an audience of speechwriters, I decided to tell the audience I would do some of it from memory, and then I would read some passages from my text. I invited them to give me some feedback about what worked best.
At first I said I would deliver it though my webcam from my study at home. I’ve got a good microphone and I’ve been doing Zooms throughout the summer. I was going to add some formality by setting up my lectern and delivering from there.
But I’ve a colleague who is a specialist in video production and he called me up on Zoom using his video cameras. The results were really professional. This was an important gig, so I asked him if I could use his equipment. This also meant that we could create a high quality video recording of my speech.
I had to travel 24 miles to get to the studio an hour before I was due to test the connection. We did a link up to check the technology worked. We did some tests to make sure the cameras were in the right place and the sound was right. I was warned that I was a bit shouty.
I practised looking down the barrel of the camera. My colleague created a holding slide that was very professional. I felt calm and confident.
As speakers, we know we have to create an emotional connection with the audience. I could just about see the audience on a screen. The lights in the theatre created a foggy blur. It was a socially distanced audience of about 40 with some of them wearing masks. One character stood out, a lady in a red jumper on the front row. That was it.
We know we’re only going to get laughs if the audience is huddled together. I asked them to wave at me to create some connection, which they did. Then I tried to involve them in a collective experiment. As speechwriters we need to understand how this new medium works. Please tell me at the end what you thought worked and didn’t work.
What did it feel like?
As I spoke, I could feel nothing coming back. No movement, no laughter, no smiles. I was aware when improvising that I was using too many umms and ahs.
I was looking directly into the lens and occasionally peering into the fog on the screen. It felt as if I was desperately trying to squeeze myself through the pinhole of a camera. I craved some energy back but I was speaking behind multiple panes of glass.
The first 15 minutes went okay, but by the fifth set I was flagging. My peroration fizzled out.
What happened during questions?
This was a Lithuanian audience. English was not their first language. They were coming to the end of a long day.
When the host asked for questions, there was no response. Nobody took up my offer to critique the different parts of the speech. The host kept the session going and I tried to be as constructive as possible. I asked the lady in the red top a direct question: ‘What could I do better, I asked?’ ‘Come to Vilnius next year’ came the reply.
I was absolutely exhausted by the end. 20 minutes is a huge amount of time to deliver a monologue to camera. I told an amusing story. I gave them some tips. But of course there was no ‘live’ conversation with the delegates afterwards.
An hour later I was standing at the platform in the Hampshire drizzle carrying my portable lectern. When I got back I noticed that one Lithuanian asked to connect on LinkedIn. That was gratifying. I was absolutely shattered. I went to bed and fell asleep at 8.30pm.
The Technical Specs
We used two cameras Sony A7iii with a Sony 55mm F1.8 lens and a Sony A7sii with a Zeiss Batis 18mm F2.8 lens with a Rode Lavalier connected to a Rode Wireless Go. The system was managed by an HDMI Switcher: Blackmagic ATEM Mini and the lighting was 2 x Rotolight NEO II LEO lights.
There are some painful observations I have to make about this experience.
1) I don’t think it’s possible to deliver 20 minutes of engaging content to camera in an empty studio with one technician. I needed a small live audience in the room to grin, encourage and nod to sustain me as I spoke. A speaker gets energy from responses: laughter, movement and eye contact. Without it, we wilt.
2) Next time, I would enlist a person to interview me. I’d pre-script a conversation between me and the interviewer. Two voices are better than one. I could get the interviewer to bring out my good stories. Ideally it would include a clash of opinions to create some drama.
3) Failing that, I would take the Alan Sugar approach. I would invite the audience to ask questions I could answer. They would lead the presentation. To guarantee this worked, I would write my own questions and send them to the host to distribute to members of the audience.
4) If I were advising a CEO, I would say deliver a scripted presentation to camera lasting no longer than 5 minutes. Any longer than that and you’re a fish burbling in an aquarium.
5) I did a lot of preparation. This took a lot of time to execute. It was extremely draining. Very few senior people have the time to put in that amount of work.
I can recycle the material for a podcast. I’ve got some good clips I can use for marketing purposes. Maybe I can use the video for future Zoom presentations.
But I don’t feel the result was a complete success, and I don’t know how that format – a 20 minute keynote – can be much improved as a Zoom presentation.
Brian Jenner is a professional speechwriter. He is curating the European Festival of Political Rhetoric which takes place in November. Thanks to ConferenceFilm for providing video support for the speech.