Many people believe a good speech is something that you write out word-for-word and then read aloud — perhaps even memorize. Some of us learned this approach in school. Others inferred it from watching perfect speeches given by politicians, award recipients and fictional television characters.
But the majority of us do not have a team of speechwriters that can work this magic. Most of us give our presentations in business meetings, online conferences and a wide range of small to mid-size internal and external events. In those typical settings, writing, reading and certainly memorizing a wordfor-word speech is actually one of the most destructive and counterproductive tactics you can adopt as a presenter.
Below are some of the biggest pitfalls created by carefully writing, reading and memorizing your speeches, as well as what you should be doing instead to accomplish your main goal: engaging and inspiring your audience.
THE WRONG THINGS
While a speaker’s primary goal is to engage and inspire, many are inclined to write out their speeches because they believe — mistakenly — that their goal is to be perceived as a fantastic speaker or writer. This mindset has nothing to do with getting your point across or doing your job, and sends you down the path of performance (“I want to impress you”), not presentation (“I want to convince you”).
In most cases, writing a full speech is also pointlessly time consuming. For every important concept you raise, you’re crafting extra lines to set up and contextualize those ideas. These words and transitions should come naturally and sound human, but when read aloud word-for-word, they can come across like the voice on a robocall — friendly, but noticeably stilted and artificial.
Writing a full speech is a process that excludes the audience, whereas delivering a speech with limited notes can involve and incorporate the audience into the experience. This concept is critical, because humans are more apt to give attention to speakers who seem to, or actually do, demonstrate a sincere interest in them.
READING BUILDS A BARRIER
Reading a speech word-forword presents its own unique disadvantages. It reduces the amount of eye contact you have with an audience, whether in an in-person meeting or on a Zoom call. Reading also diminishes your ability to speak with personal conviction because, when you read a speech aloud, your mind is not focused on enlightening or inspiring your audience; it’s focused on the task of reading. It isn’t easy to read words and project fervor simultaneously, but when you remove the script, you restore the human connection between the speaker and the audience and enable more emotive communication.
In more than 15 years of watching and training speakers, I’ve rarely seen someone read a speech as compellingly as someone who presents their point live.
Some people insist on scripting entire speeches to calm their own anxiety at public speaking. But when your focus is on getting from the beginning of the speech to the end, the whole point of public speaking is reduced to a robotic task. Sacrificing audience impact to preserve your comfort and security is not a sustainable approach. The best way to overcome fear at speaking publicly is to embrace your purpose, not shrink from it.
ING FOR TROUBLE
When you memorize something, you are still reading — now with the script in your head instead of in your hands — and the slightest memory misstep can cause you to lose your place and throw you off. Even small memory lapses can reveal to your audience that you’re actually reciting a script, which can diminish your credibility, your authenticity and their respect for you as an invited presenter.
Why risk forgetting something you memorized, or suffer the obstacles to engagement created by reading aloud, when there’s a much easier, quicker and more effective way to prepare, practice and present? For me, that better way consists of four basic steps:
- START WITH AN OUTLINE
Your grade school teachers were right: Effective communication starts with an outline — a road map that indicates the points you must hit on the way to your destination. The most effective outlines start with a proposition (I’m selling you an idea), followed by points that support that proposition (I’m showing you why the idea is beneficial to you).
The more you practice, the shorter that outline should become as you realize you require fewer and fewer reminders than you thought.
- CREATE USEFUL NOTES Eventually, your outline becomes so small and concise you can fit it on an index card. This becomes your notes. Your notes are your cheat sheet, feeding you major points and essential details you might otherwise forget. I often tell my clients to construct their notes as they would a shopping list, with bullets, abbreviations and incomplete sentences. Your notes should be so personally coded for your individual use that they read as nonsense to another person.
The good thing about having notes as opposed to a script is that whenever you look up at your audience, you can look down again and easily track where you are and what you need to say next.
- PRACTICE EFFECTIVELY You already know that practice is important, but it’s crucial to understand the difference between effective and ineffective presentation practicing. Ineffective practice is thinking about your speech and mumbling the words, which only helps you know your presentation better. Effective practice is having your mind and mouth work together to convey your speech aloud and in real time. This tactic comes closest to simulating what you’ll be doing when you really deliver your speech.
You don’t need a person, a mirror or a camera to practice effectively — just yourself, your mind and your mouth, practicing by physically presenting.
- TRUST YOURSELF MORE THAN YOUR SCRIPT
You speak without a script in your workplace all the time: in meetings, job interviews, performance reviews, conference calls and more. You spend a lot of time trusting yourself, your experience and your credibility when you speak spontaneously. Use that understanding to realize — with confidence — that you don’t need a script to make compelling points.
When you know your points well, have prepared good notes and practiced the right way, you’ll understand that conveying your ideas live and unscripted is easier, less frightening and more effective than you thought. Anyone can read a script; leaders champion their ideas.