What are your top tips for speaking at Conference?

My speaking debut at a political conference took place almost exactly 32 years ago. It was the SDP Conference in Paisley in February 1986. The subject was drug abuse. The debate was way too central belt focused for my liking so I decided to talk about the issue as I saw it in Wick. I ended up getting described in the Press and Journal as an “all over problem.” Or at least that’s how they headlined my speech. It also, I believe, made headline news in the John O’Groat Journal. They even rang me up a year or so later for an update.

I made my  Federal Conference debut in Torquay in 1993. It was in a debate on some sort of worthy constitutional reform. I can’t remember whether the motion or the amendment proposed allowing people who weren’t MPs or Lords to serve n the Cabinet. I thought this was a good idea, with appropriate safeguards like parliamentary approval so I wrote a speech and put a card in.

About half an hour before the debate, I was hyper-ventilating in a corner while putting the finishing touches to my speech. Monroe Palmer, now a Lib Dem peer, found me and was incredibly encouraging and reassuring. I have never forgotten his kindness.

It wasn’t the first time I’d had to sweat through a debate. I’d put a card in for the economy debate on Black Wednesday the year before and didn’t get called. It is quite nerve-wracking.

The scariest thing of all, though, is when the session chair says “Will Caron Lindsay please stand by….” Because you then have 3 minutes of fairly high level terror until it is your turn. You know there is no turning back. Choosing flight over fight just isn’t an option.

By the time you get on the stage, there is no need to worry. Adrenaline is  powerful stuff and will get you through. Take a few seconds when you get to the lectern just to adjust yourself. It helps if you have a friendly face in the audience to glance at for encouragement.

If you really believe in what you are saying, that will really come across to the audience.

I have often gone and congratulated people on speeches I have then voted against because they were good speeches even if I didn’t agree with them. That really helps with confidence too. Back in 1993, Liz Barker, who was then, I think, Chair of Conference Committee, told me my speech was really good even though she didn’t agree with one word. She didn’t have to do that but it did wonders for me.

Having said that, it took 20 years, until Secret Courts came along, before I was tempted back on to the Federal Conference stage.

What would my speaking tips be?

  • Prepare, or if you are winging it, do it on something you are really passionate about
  • Practice on some friends just so you can get used to the words coming out of your mouth
  • Fill in your speaker’s card well. I can’t improve on Jennie Rigg’s tips here.
  • Accept you are going to feel nervous – but do it anyway. The nerves actually help.
  • Enjoy it.

What would your tips be to a first time Conference speaker?

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Kay Kirkham 7th Mar '18 - 12:20pm

    And don’t fall down the steps on the way down flattening the tasteful floral arrangements at the bottom! ( see SDP conference in Buxton in 1980 something live on BBC2)

  • Ruth Bright 7th Mar '18 - 12:29pm

    Kay – bless!

    Incomparable advice from Jennie and Caron. There is such a mystique about filling out that speakers’ card if you haven’t done it before. Also, always slow down – it is so easy to speak too quickly when nervous. Also if you risk a joke don’t be disappointed if the reaction seems muted. In such a big auditorium it takes a bit longer for the wave of laughter to reach back to you on the podium.

  • Phil Wainewright 7th Mar '18 - 12:45pm

    I would say, write your first draft before you get to conference. Then use it to help you fill in your speaker’s card (following Jenny Rigg’s tips as Caron recommends above). No more than 120 words per minute and aim to finish early – it’s easier to slow down than speed up!

  • Lorenzo Cherin 7th Mar '18 - 2:17pm

    Very good from Caron and colleagues.

    As someone with both a performing and politiking, in my professional and personal experience and interest, I like these suggestions and realte to this piece.

    I have taught confidence building classes , with assertiveness training and presentation skills, often to vulnerable and unemployed people.

    The key is the very important point mentioned by Caron here. Accept you are nervous, almost embrace it.

    There is a very good expression in the film industry at every stage from top or at basic or bottom, Hollywood or bust, its “nobody knows anything!”

    Accept that and you can do anything…

  • Nick Collins 7th Mar '18 - 4:08pm

    When you get the “please stand by” cue, if not before, position yourself somewhere close to the lectern. I’ve never forgotten the occasion, at a National League of Young Liberals conference in the 1960s, when a speaker began his journey to the lectern from the very back of the hall. As he hastened towards the front, his footsteps quickening as he went and echoing from the wooden floor, a growing number of unkind colleagues took up the beat and began to chant the refrain from a (then current) tv ad: “hot chocolate, drinking chocolate … ” reaching a crescendo as the poor chap reached the lectern.

    That was unkind and not very liberal. It’s not typical behaviour at a LibDem Conference, so remember that you are among friends; the audience are not hostile and actually want you to do well.

  • Mark Blackburn 7th Mar '18 - 6:49pm

    Speeches always go more quickly than you expect. If you have too much on your bullet point cards/in your script you will over-run! And there’s nothing worse than being midstream when they cut you off, as @Jennie says. Be brief, hit your key points and give yourself time to end on a high note.

  • Kay – SDP didn’t exist in 1980. 1986 ?

  • Oh yes, @Nick Collins, “the audience are not hostile and actually want you to do well.”

    If you’re a first time speaker you will get cheered just for that.

  • Kay Kirkham 8th Mar '18 - 2:44pm

    Tim – I wrote ‘1980 something’ because i have forgotten the date. 1986 may be right!

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