July 15

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Rule #2: Don’t Read Your Speech

By jaime

July 15, 2020


Let me ask you a question: would you pay to go to the theater if the actors just stood on stage and read from their scripts? What about the movies? Do you think that Tom Hanks would have won an Oscar for Forest Gump if he’d just read the script in a Southern drawl? No. As a matter of fact, H-E-double-hockey-sticks, no. Why, then, do speakers think they can get away with doing the same? I see people prepare very long and intricate speeches then stand at the podium and read them word-for-word, occasionally stopping to look up at their audience. As if those brief moments of eye contact would somehow be sufficient to make a that oh-so-crucial connection. No. If you want your message to be well-received, please don’t read it verbatim. Find a way to make it sound personal because it is, after all, your message.

The Cure for Nerves Is Practice

I know what you’re thinking, “But I get so nervous I’ll forget what I want to say. I need a script!” I understand nerves can wreak havoc on a well-planned presentation but here’s a little secret: you’re the only one who will know if you left something out. The audience doesn’t know what you want to say. No one is going to come up to you afterwards and say, “Hey, you left out a few details.” If you take the time to practice your speech over and over before you deliver it, you’ll be less likely to forget key points. Sure, you might be so nervous before taking the stage that your mind will go blank but if you practiced enough, it will all start to come back to you. It’s like muscle memory in an athlete. They might be nervous before the game but, once they hear the starting whistle, they start playing as if the game was second-nature to them.

Write Your Speech As A Guide, Not A Crutch

It’s ok to write your speech so you can get your thoughts organized but you shouldn’t write it in such a way that you can’t speak without it. The other day I was watching a documentary on the Rolling Stones. Before going on tour they got together to, guess what, rehearse! This is a band that’s been playing together for longer than some of you have been alive and they still rehearse their songs. Why? Because the more familiar you are with your material, the easier it will flow. Your delivery is more natural, the audience is more receptive. And there is another side-benefit to practice: it allows you to improvise. If anything unexpected happens in the middle of your performance, you can more easily adapt and recover. Imagine that you are about to give your speech before a large conference crowd. You’re not nervous because you’ve got it all written down. What could go wrong? Now imagine you set your speech down on a table while you make a final trip to the bathroom. When you return, to your horror, your speech is gone. Someone mistakenly threw it away and you don’t even know what trash can it’s in–there is no hope of retrieving it. Suddenly, you hear the announcer reading your bio out to the crowd. You’re about to go on and you don’t have your speech; what do you do? Well if you had practiced it, then you would at least have a rough idea of how it went. You could “wing it” and the audience would probably not notice. But if you were relying completely on your written document then you’re in trouble.

So before your next speech, I encourage you to sit down and write it out to solidify the message. But then practice, practice and then practice it some more. Do this weeks before your speech so you’ll have time to perfect it. Believe me, your audience will receive it much better when it sounds like it’s a natural conversation between you and them instead of just a mechanical regurgitation of what’s written on a piece of paper.

About the author

I'm an engineer and, sometime, public speaker.  I believe technical presentations don't have to be boring.  I believe the world will benefit when engineers become better communicators.

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