4 ways to speak better from a script (if you must)

An error-free script doesn’t mean you’ll give a perfect speech. Instead, it destroys the vital inner life of your message. Want to avoid looking like a cardboard cut-out? Read this.

Many speakers like to type out their speeches.

It’s easy to imagine these presenters hunched over their laptops for days, a steady stream of caffeine their only companion. Despite sleep deprivation, their hard work results in carefully-edited, near-perfect speeches.

Their scripts look perfect. But when the speakers read their words aloud for the first time in their presentations, they sound stiffer than a newly-hired telemarketer reading the script his boss just thrust into his hands. Audience members can tell that the speaker is reading and might conclude it would have been more efficient if the speaker distributed his text and let them read it.

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 advantages. Writing out a speech can help speakers create a tight structure and discover a few ideas, themes, or cleverly-worded phrases they wouldn’t have stumbled upon.

I’m not against writing out your script, since it might yield valuable fruit. I’m only against delivering speeches from scripts (unless you’re a head of state, 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:

1. Write short sentences

Long sentences may look good on paper, but they don’t sound natural when spoken aloud. Shorten them. Separate long sentences into two or three sentences.

2. Use “non-reading” delivery

When people read a speech, they lose the vocal dynamics and non-verbal delivery elements they use in less formal speech. Remember to change pace, add a few pauses, speak more quickly in certain moments to add excitement and more slowly in others to let the audience contemplate a key idea.

3. Maintain eye contact

Challenge yourself to maintain eye contact for at least 80 percent of your talk (you should aim for 100 percent, but 80 percent is laudable for speakers working off a script). Write short sentences and short words; it will allow you to look down, see the next line, look back up, and deliver the line to an audience member, a method James C. Humes refers to as the “See-Stop-Say” technique.

4. Use this better alternative

I usually encourage clients who deliver speeches from scripts to leave a few holes in their texts. Speakers should open their speeches without a text. If they welcome people to a conference, they should say, “Welcome, we’re so glad you’re here!” without any notes. Same goes for the close. In the middle of your speech, insert a hole for a personal anecdote, which will come across more authentically if you share it off the page. Practice the transition to your prepared remarks once you complete the anecdote.

Brad Phillips is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm, and author of “The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.” He blogs at Mr. Media Training, where a version of this article originally appeared.

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