Stage fright … the key to a magical performance?

Much has been written on the subject of public speaking nerves. If I want a suitable quote on this or any other matter, I look first to an American writer and humorist who never lets me down.

There are only two kind of speakers: (1) the nervous; and (2) liars.’ (Mark Twain, 1865-1910)

That gem, as true today as it was then, is the subject of a short video I recorded last year for my YouTube channel ‘The Mottoist.’

Like the inimitable and often-quoted Mark Twain, I said in the video that yes, most people are nervous when speaking in public. Not all, but most. There’s even a word for it now, ‘glossophobia’, and we’re told that 75% of the public suffer from it.

Not just the general public but stars from every genre of the performing arts. Dames Judi Dench and Janet Baker. John Lennon. Leonard Cohen. Stevie Nicks. Henry Fonda. The list goes on.

So back to my headline at the top of this piece, and maybe the key takeaway, from the aforementioned Stevie Nicks (she of Fleetwood Mac, if you’re not into rock): ‘If you have stage fright, it never goes away. But maybe the stage fright is the key to that magical performance.’

The good news: stress is helpful, provided you can manage it.

Want to know more? Message me!

Here’s a link to the video:

Wedding speeches: high crimes and misdemeanours

The best man as wannabe standup comic

I find the subject of wedding speeches fascinating; but for me it’s a part-time project. Therefore, when writing The Wedding Speech Handbook , I consulted many people whom I shall call ‘wedding professionals.’ By this I mean people who have a full-time business providing wedding services. Their input was of great value, especially with regard to the things they regarded as a ‘no-no.’ Here are some examples of ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’ according to those wedding pros. Most of them are covered in a little more detail in Chapter 10 of the book.

Lack of personal context to stories

This was the ‘#1 crime’ reported by professional storyteller Polly Tisdall and it absolutely mirrors my own view. Because humour is so valued in our culture, jokes by a best man have for years been seen as a necessary feature of his speech; but not everybody is a gifted joke-teller. Far better, in my view, to tell stories that feature the bride or groom, how they met, etc. Yes, of course the stories can be funny but the essential point is to make them relevant to the occasion.

And please, please, please don’t find jokes on the Internet. Thanks to that very Internet, a joke that you think is brand-new might well be known to half the audience. And it might also be thought tasteless by the other half. Bear in mind that most wedding audiences are very diverse, especially as regards age. This is one of my major bugbears and it’s well illustrated by the cartoon above, which is by the talented David Lewis.

Not being heard

These days most venues have a PA system available. That’s helpful but it does put a premium on microphone technique, so I’ve included a section on that topic in the book. Fortunately my daughter Madeleine is a professional actor and singer, with plenty of experience of using mics, so she wrote the section for me. There are also tips about choice of microphone types; and for those situations where PA is unnecessary or inappropriate, I’ve also added a section on voice projection.

On PA, a word of warning from photographer Giles Bracher: ‘if you’re going to use a lapel mic (which of course presupposes that there is a sound man on hand and that he doesn’t mind switching the mic over from speaker to speaker) and if you should need to use the loo between the time the mic is fitted and the time you actually stand up to speak (Mother Nature ensures that this occurrence is common), be sure to check that the mic isn’t switched on!’

Failing to prepare properly

Giles Bracher again: ‘My pet hate is speakers who think it’s OK to just turn up and chat.’ In my view, that shows disrespect to the couple, the event and the guests. In our culture the speeches are a big deal at a wedding and a speaker’s preparation should reflect that fact.

Going on for too long
Most wedding speeches are between five and ten minutes. However, I have heard horror stories of speeches lasting over an hour. By which time some guests had departed for the bar or the loo, or had dozed off.

Photographer Tasha Park says: ‘keep it short and sweet. Even the best speeches become difficult to listen to after the 15-minute mark’. And venue host Brigid Holdsworth told me about a wedding featuring three garrulous and adoring best men, where the speeches took two hours in total.

The dreaded booze

One or two drinks before speaking is of course a great temptation, but the meaning of ‘one or two’ depends on your constitution. Only you know your tolerance for the stuff, or at least you should. I know some people for whom the first two drinks don’t touch the sides.

I was once doing some work in a cafe and two strangers at the next table looked ideal candidates for my informal research: men in their thirties, extrovert types who wouldn’t object to being quizzed. I asked if either of them had spoken at a wedding recently and both said yes. ‘So how many drinks did you have beforehand?’ The first answered: ‘five or six pints of beer, just to take the edge off’ and the second: ‘I was so nervous beforehand, I couldn’t have faced it without getting hammered first.’

Luckily, most speakers take the matter more seriously. One of my coaching clients, speaking at his daughter’s’ wedding , said that before speaking he had ‘half a glass of wine. I’m a control freak: I wanted to get it right.’ However, at my suggestion he had a reward in his eye-line during the speech: a very large glass of whisky, his favourite tipple, visible in front of him but not to be touched till after the speech.

Hypnotherapist Sharon Stiles told me about speeches at two different friends’ weddings, where the respective best men’s speeches were both ruined by too much drink. See my book for more on that.

Not consulting the other speakers

This is an absolute no-no in the case of multiple best men, which as you’ll probably know has been a trend for some time. But for any speaker, nobody wants to hear the same story twice. Consultation is useful anyway: after all, which of the bride’s father and the groom will thank whom? Best to sort those details out in advance.

Speaking too fast

This is a natural reaction to the stress of the occasion. The remedies: rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Record your voice (you’ve probably got a voice recorder app on your phone) and listen to it! Better still, play the recording to a partner, a friend, your dog.

(OK, I lied about the dog; they are famously poor judges of anything said by their owners. As Aldous Huxley said, “to his dog, every man is Napoleon, hence the constant popularity of dogs.” )

For more on high crimes and misdemeanours, see The Wedding Speech Handbook, Chapter 10: ‘Tips From the Professionals’.


Just had a great review for ‘Back to the Black’. What makes it really gratifying is that it comes from a chartered accountant who also writes about personal finance. Here it is:


I have just completed reading this book and came away more informed about personal debt and the different planning methods to get debt free.

As a personal finance author myself I found this book to be well written and clearly laid out, anyone in debt can pick up a copy and learn strategies to adopt/ implement in these stressful situations. This book is like having your own personal debt coach guiding you in your decision making process to financial stability.

Michael Mac Mohan breaks down the debt topic into digestible bite-size pieces that makes it easy for a person to come up with a plan/ strategy for getting out of debt. There are some touching debt stories/ case studies that are inspirational and would help motivate others who find themselves in similar situations.

I would recommend getting a copy for yourself if you are in debt or if you know someone in this situation.

Neala Okuromade, FCCA, author of ‘What’s Your Financial Gameplan?’

Back to the Black on free promotion



Breaking news!

The Kindle version of Back to the Black …. how to become debt-free and stay that way (second edition) will be available as a free download from 1st – 5th March inclusive.

The promotion applies to all territories.

Here are the links to access your free copy during the promotion:


US / worldwide:


Sherlock’s Hardest Case: How to Write an Unforgettable Best Man Speech


221b Baker Street

Image by hknong via Morguefile

Sherlock Holmes is wrestling with a difficult problem at 221B Baker Street. So problematic, in fact, that he sends an urgent summons for help to Detective Inspector Lestrade. As Lestrade arrives – with a full backup team, having left a crime in progress – Holmes, played by Benedict Cumberbatch on BBC-TV, holds up a slim book entitled How to Write an Unforgettable Best Man Speech. “This is hard,” he says. “The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”

If you should ever need to do that “hardest thing” and make a best man’s speech, don’t rush out to your favourite bookstore, be it Amazon or bricks-and-mortar, to find a copy of that book. Sadly, it doesn’t exist. (I say sadly, because that episode of Sherlock went viral and it would have been a fantastic piece of product placement.)

YOUR OPINION SOUGHT … wedding speeches on screen

A good friend told me that it would be an interesting exercise to analyse that now-famous speech, and I’ve decided to ask my readers for their opinions on it … and on other wedding speeches on screen, both TV dramas and feature films.

There are of course millions of real wedding speeches now on YouTube but I’m looking for fictional ones, because I believe that their lessons are more easily remembered. Benedict Cumberbatch, as Sherlock, has millions of fans (aka Cumberbitches), but that’s not the only reason for writing about his now-famous but fictional speech.

The other reason is that the latest series of the drama has just finished on BBC TV – personally I didn’t like the way they developed this last series but that’s just my opinion, though I know I am not alone – so maybe you fans are suffering withdrawal symptoms.

The Sign of Three: solve a crime or two, write a speech

This speech came, as any Sherlock fan will tell you, in an episode called The Sign of Three, broadcast in 2014. Sherlock has been invited to be Dr Watson’s best man, to his surprise and confusion. Simply writing it is, as he tells D.I. Lestrade, “the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”

Your turn to comment!

So here’s the survey. What do you think of Sherlock’s speech? If you were planning a best man’s speech, what lessons, if any, would you take from it?

Here is a link to a video of the speech, via our old friends at YouTube:

That link takes you to almost the full speech, apart from a section at the beginning where Sherlock reads out the messages from absent friends; or, as he says: “First things first: telegrams! Well, they’re not actually telegrams; we just call them telegrams. I don’t know why. Wedding tradition, I suppose. Because apparently we don’t have enough of that already.”

This is all fiction, of course; but I think there are some useful lessons that can be learned from it. Do you agree? If so, what are they? And what do you think about what he does at the very start – reading the so-called ‘telegrams’ – which isn’t in this video?

If you want to see that part too, the only version I found on YouTube isn’t of great quality and has subtitles in Dutch; but here it is.

And for a final piece of background, here’s a transcript of an interview with Steven Moffat, who was Executive Producer of the Sherlock series and who wrote the speech, talking about this episode. He says he always wanted to see Sherlock as a best man. (That idea was his, not Conan Doyle’s:  in the original novels, Watson marries Mary Morstan between stories, off-screen so to speak). Moffat’s thoughts are very instructive.

Please post your comments: I’ll post mine soon. I will also post links to posts about this episode by other bloggers, so that you can compare your views with theirs.


That episode of Sherlock? It’s called The Sign of Three.

Other fictional wedding speeches from movies and TV dramas? I’ll be posting in coming weeks about other onscreen speeches. Watch this space!

‘Budget Boxmas’: Christmas gift-buying for thrifty times


Image from Morguefile

About ten years ago my two daughters and I started a tradition which has persisted to this day. We feel it has introduced more fun into our Christmasses; and we like it so much that we talk about it to anyone who’s interested. And quite a few who aren’t. We call it ‘Budget Boxmas’.

Alvin Hall and Christmas presents

Do you remember Alvin Hall, the American financial guru and author? He presented several popular money advice series on BBC2, from 1999 and 2003, and he first opened my eyes to the insanity of the Christmas gift-buying frenzy.

One of the programmes featured a couple who had a combined income of around £70,000 but had got into serious debt. Alvin established that one of the reasons was an addiction with buying expensive Christmas presents, and not just for friends and family but also for neighbours, neighbours’ children, etc etc. They started Christmas gift buying every September, sometimes even earlier, and I think they spent around £10,000 every year.

So Alvin Hall did a little experiment: he asked the couple’s two sons what they thought was the best thing about Christmas Day. The Christmas dinner with the family was top of both lists; the decorations; singing carols; seeing friends, etc.

“What about the gifts from your folks?” prompted Hall, because neither of them had included the gifts in their lists of favourite things. “Oh yes, they’re nice too.”

Then Alvin talked to the neighbours. Only a week after Christmas, he asked a few neighbours, who’d received quite extravagant presents from this generous couple, if they could remember what they’d been given. Sadly, the answer was no.

That little experiment, harsh though it might have seemed, made the case for me that spending lots of money on Christmas presents was not necessary, despite the blandishments of the advertisers.

Our family’s response

I moved to Bristol twelve years ago. My daughters used always to spend Boxing Day with me and Christmas Day with their mother, as she and I had divorced a few years before that. My cooking wasn’t in the same class as their mum’s; but the girls and I had lots of fun, with plenty of booze and plenty of songs, as they both love singing.

By the time they arrived at my place in Bristol on 26 December, the girls had already had lots of presents from their generous mother, their stepdad, grandparents and friends. They and I soon realised that what we all needed from Boxing Day (or Boxmas, as they started calling it) did not need to involve more expensive presents, some of which might be duplicated.

So we came up with an idea – actually it wasn’t mine, it came from a friend of mine. She and her kids had set a spending limit of £10, so we decided to do the same. However the details were not clearly agreed in advance, so I took it to mean you mustn’t spend more than £10 per item. The girls thought it meant £10 per person, which of course was far more logical.

So from the second year onwards we got our act together and the £10 per person limit applied. The result was an increase in creative thought around the gift buying process. Instead of simply throwing money at the problem, we became patrons of Poundland and of charity shops; also we would recycle gifts and we would make stuff. The girls became particularly good at making what they still call mix-tapes, although they are of course CDs nowadays.

Our thinking behind this ‘Budget Boxmas’, as we call it, was this: so often one receives gifts that one didn’t really want and certainly didn’t need. We are not on the edge of poverty but we don’t believe in wasting money. Good food and drink and each other’s company (and maybe singing) are the essentials of the festive season for us. Our musical hero Loudon Wainwright calls Christmas a “Retail Eternity” and this is our small rebellion against that. Of course our presents are in monetary terms trivial but we know that thought has gone into them.

Did you get anything that you didn’t want or need? You just give it to a charity shop … perfect!


Want to know more?

Alvin Hall TV series:

… and book: Your Money Or Your Life

My book Back to the Black … how to become debt-free and stay that way:

How Leonard Cohen dealt with stage fright



We mourn the passing of Leonard Cohen and rightly so. I can’t add anything new to the many excellent tributes already published about his poetry (because he was an established poet for some time before he also began singing and hence broadened his appeal and earning power.

I want to talk about an aspect of his performing life that many performers will sympathise with: his stage fright, or performance anxiety, or whatever you like to call it. We know now that fame and experience don’t necessarily get rid of stage fright: Judi Dench, John Lennon and Henry Fonda have all admitted to it, if I pick just three stellar names. Leonard Cohen’s was at another level and therefore the way he dealt with it was fairly drastic, at least it was at first.

I first became aware of this when researching a speech I was about to give at a Toastmasters International meeting and have in fact given many times since. My chosen topic was “what can we speakers learn from other performers, when it comes to pre-performance rituals?” I could have chosen actors or instrumentalists or athletes as examples of other performers but I chose singers; and popular singers in particular. Why was that? Because we know a lot about them and because Noel Coward was right when he said: “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.”

My singers and their rituals were Chris Martin of Coldplay, Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac, Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, Beyonce, Elvis Presley and … wait for it …. Leonard Cohen.

When I wrote that speech Cohen was over 80 and was still performing. However he used to suffer badly with stage fright. His strategy was twofold. He recited Latin chants with his backing singers and he drank a whiskey.

The whiskey (or whisky, if one’s preference is for that spirit to come from Scotland, or rye from his native Canada, rather than Ireland or the States) is not unusual but Latin chants certainly are. Leonard Cohen truly was unique.


DX6516_2905414b[1]“The amount UK consumers owe on loans and credit cards grew by £1.9bn in March 2016, the highest figure in 11 years, driven by a sharp rise in spending on plastic.”    (The Guardian)

If personal debt really is increasing again at a worrying rate, then a growing number of people could soon be facing the stress of a debt crisis.

For anyone facing this kind of problem, debt advisers might say things like this:

  • Don’t ignore the situation. Open the demand letters, make a list of the balances.
  • Always respond to every communication from a creditor. That shows you’re serious about dealing with the situation.
  • Make an offer. Explain if you can’t offer more.

To those basic steps, I’d add another:

  • Always communicate in writing. You’ll have a record of what was said and agreed; and it’s less stressful than dealing with creditors on the phone.

Avoid the phone

Many years ago I was in that situation, when my small business failed and I owed money to 26 creditors. Negotiating with all of them took a long time but eventually I came through it without permanent scars on my sanity (as far as I know).

I always negotiated in writing, never on the phone.

Dealing with a creditor on the telephone is stressful. My voicemail took a lot of the strain (what a great invention, whether you have an actual machine or a service from your phone provider) but if a creditor left a message I always responded … in writing.


One of the complications that I occasionally encountered was the involvement of intermediaries. Some were bogus law firms which were actually departments of the creditor company, with stationery designed to give the impression of being a genuine law firm, in order to intimidate.

When dealing with intermediaries of any kind, I was always extra-polite, working on the assumption that they hadn’t been fully informed, so I would write things like: “maybe you don’t know, but in the letter of so-and-so from your client …” and I’d enclose or attach a copy of the previous correspondence.

Not keen on writing letters? Help is available!

You might say that writing letters (or emails) is not your strong point. That’s no problem, because lots of debt management organisations can help you. For example, here in the UK, Citizens Advice Bureaux are all over the country and their advice is free and impartial. They helped me greatly. The other major nationwide debt advice charities are StepChange and National Debtline. There are also many local not-for-profit advice providers: for example in Bristol, where I live, there’s Talking Money. There’ll be one near you.

Buying time: it helps your negotiation

The other benefit of working with one of the debt advice charities, or any adviser, is that it creates a little distance between you and the creditor and it buys you some time. So, if a creditor calls you rejecting your offer and gives you a counter-proposal, you can say (politely, of course!) “thank you; but could you put that in writing, please, because I have to refer it to my advisers.”

Letter templates

Templates for standard letters / emails are available from some of the organisations I mentioned above. You can also find templates in my book Back to the Black.

Want to know more?

This article is an extract from my book Back to the Black … how to become debt-free and stay that way.