Four Better Ways To Speak From a Script (If You Must)
Many speakers like to type out their entire speeches.
It’s easy to imagine these presenters hunched over their laptops for days, a steady stream of caffeine serving as their only companions. Despite their sleep deprivation, their hard work ultimately results in carefully-edited, near-perfect speeches.
At least their scripts look perfect. But when the speakers read their words aloud for the first time during their presentations, they sound stiffer than a newly hired phone solicitor reading the script his boss just thrust into his hands. As a result, audience members can tell that the speaker is reading and might conclude that it would have been more efficient if the speaker had just distributed the text and let them read it for themselves.
These speakers are often dreadful to watch because they fail to remember that writing for the eye is different than writing for the ear.
Still, writing out a full speech does have certain advantages. For example, writing out a speech can help speakers create a tightly-focused organizational structure and discover a few ideas, themes, or cleverly-worded phrases that they otherwise wouldn’t have stumbled upon.
Therefore, I’m not against writing out your entire script, since doing so might help yield valuable fruit. I’m only against delivering speeches from prepared scripts (unless you’re the head of state or a similarly important figure, for whom a single bad word choice could provoke an international incident or cause markets to plummet).
If you must deliver a speech from a prepared text, here are four tips to consider:
1. Write Short Sentences
Long sentences may look good on paper, but they typically don’t sound natural when spoken aloud. Shorten them or separate longer lines into two or three sentences.
2. Use “Non-Reading” Delivery
When people read a speech, they tend to lose the vocal dynamics and non-verbal delivery elements they use during less formal presentations. So remember to change your pace, add a few pauses, speak more quickly in certain moments to add a dose of excitement and more slowly in others to allow the audience time to contemplate a key idea.
3. Maintain Eye Contact
Challenge yourself to maintain eye contact with the audience for at least 80 percent of your talk (you should eventually aim for closer to 100 percent, but reaching 80 percent is a laudable achievement for most speakers working off a script). Help yourself by writing short sentences and short words; doing so will allow you to look down, see the next line, look back up, and deliver the line directly to a person in your audience, an approach public speaking author James C. Humes refers to as the “See-Stop-Say” Technique.
4. Use This Better Alternative
I usually encourage clients who are delivering a speech from a script to leave a few holes in their texts. For example, speakers should be able to open their speeches for a minute or two without a formal text. If they’re welcoming people to an annual conference, they should be able to say, “Welcome, we’re so glad you’re here!” without any notes in front of them. Same goes for your close. In the middle of your speech, you might insert a hole for a personal anecdote, which will come across with greater authenticity if you share it “off the page.” Just practice your transition back into your prepared remarks once you’ve completed the anecdote.
I was a political speechwriter for over six years. When I finished writing the first draft of a speech, I would stand up and read it out loud as if delivering it to the audience. The spoken and written word are dramatically different. Beyond sentence length and structure, “say-ability” is important: how easily the words fit together and how pronounceable they are for the speaker — and how well the pauses and emphasis are indicated in the script. My colleagues used to laugh and tell me ‘anything’ I wrote could be read out loud as a speech. The takeaway? Written word does not translate well to speech, but spoken word style generally works well in print.