Reading a Speech is Boring
Last year, during a federal election campaign, I was invited to a friend’s home to hear the local Green Party candidate. For the first part of his presentation, the candidate took out a sheaf of papers, placed them on the stand in front of him, and proceeded to read his speech. He at least tried to look up at his audience occasionally, but the looks were too brief to make real eye contact with anyone. His voice was flat, and it quickly fell into that sing-song rhythm that happens to almost anyone who reads aloud from a prepared text. His speech was obviously well-intentioned, but boring.
After his speech, the candidate fielded questions from the audience. Now, this gentleman is an environmental scientist, with extensive knowledge of the concerns that drew him to the Green Party. He spoke easily and naturally. His voice was vibrant and his eyes shone. His passion for his subject was clearly evident as information poured from his lips. Freed from his speechifying strait-jacket, he was positively riveting! Why would anyone who could speak like that ever read a prepared speech?
He probably thought he had points he needed to cover and wanted to be sure to word them a certain way. Unfortunately, when information is delivered in the lacklustre way that a read speech almost always is, the audience doesn’t retain the very points the speaker so carefully prepared. If the delivery is boring, the thinking part of a listener’s brain will not focus on the data.
When the candidate spoke extemporaneously, his energy – his heart! –reached out and touched everyone in the room, whether they agreed with him or not. He wasn’t a highly animated speaker, but he was passionate about his subject, and he was genuine. His personal energy was accessible to the audience. A memorable speaker does not simply deliver information. Energy, not data, is what connects with an audience. It’s the connection that causes people to remember the data.
Canada’s late Prime Minister, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, was stuffy and wooden when he read from a prepared speech. Yet when he spoke without a written text, he was electrifying. He moved people. Even those who disagreed with him admired him. People called it “Trudeau-mania”. It’s not that he was unprepared – he had a brilliant mind and he was thoroughly informed. But without the restriction of a script, his mind could ride the magic carpet of his personality, his energy, and his ideas hit their mark in the minds of his listeners.
Memorization is not the answer
For one thing, it’s extremely stressful to try to remember the exact words. Sure, skilled actors expressively deliver memorized scripts all the time, but most people are not skilled actors. Secondly, your audience can tell if you are reading from the teleprompter behind your eyes. It’s hardly different from reading a written text. Your energy still doesn’t make a genuine connection with your listeners.
It takes a leap of faith to wean yourself from a pre-written script. Your safety-net is the fact that you are thoroughly prepared in your subject – so prepared that you could sit across from a friend and talk at length about your topic. From all that material, select the three points you consider most important for your audience to hear. Our minds seem to retain information best when it’s presented in three’s – consider fairy tales and Biblical parables. Choose no more than three backup details for each point. (Don’t feel you have to tell the audience everything you know. They wouldn’t remember it anyway. If you need to convey extensive or detailed data, put it in a handout.)
How do you remember those three points in the pressure of the moment, with adrenaline coursing through your veins? I construct a single sentence incorporating a key word or two from each point (in the right order!) It doesn’t have to make sense. If I’ve finished a point and my mind screams, “What’s next???” I simply review the sentence and the key word tells me what’s next.
Another strategy is to imagine a simple graphic to represent each point. If your proposal fits within your organization’s budget, for example, a dollar sign will represent that point. Now mentally paste the graphic for each point on the three walls in front of you, left side, back wall, right side. As you move from point to point, simply “looking” at the graphic on the next wall will remind you of the next point.
Practice, Practice, Practice!
Practice speaking extemporaneously at home before your presentation. Some ideas will come out the same way every time, not because you’ve memorized them, but because certain phrases have become readily available to you as you speak in the moment. Keep in mind that your audience is not looking for perfect words. Remember Jean Chretien? People used to make jokes that Canada had a Prime Minister who couldn’t speak either official language! But his energy was so readily accessible that his lack of speaking polish was secondary. He was Prime Minister for many years, wasn’t he? See? It works!
Focus on making a connection with your listeners. Focus on giving your energy to your audience. If you can bring yourself to make that leap of faith just once, I promise that you will love it so much, you will never want to go back to that boring speechifying. You really can ditch the script!