More readers have come to this blog for the post Read a speech rather than memorize? Sure. Just do it well. than any other. It’s been translated by Google into what must be nearly a dozen languages.
I know people don’t have time to memorize their speeches. So, we tried to offer tips on how to read a speech so that the audience would forget it was being read. (One way to read a speech is to use a teleprompter. But not many can afford it or find it appropriate to use the clear screens that flank the lectern and that deliver the written text to the speechmaker. Some say they are overused and the President of The United States – POTUS- endures a lot of this criticism for his reliance on TOTUS – Teleprompter of The United States.)
That’s not what has prompted this post. What struck me about President Obama’s State of the Union Speech (SOTUS) on January 25, 2011 was an insight that addresses a powerful element found in influential speeches that is often lost when they are read.
After the SOTUS, Time.com’s editor-at-large and Senior Political Analyst Mark Halperin wrote in his blog The Page:
“Obama’s presentation was close to flawless: upbeat and animated, leisurely and assured, surprisingly engaging even when he lapsed into the professorial mode he favors over tub-thumping. He also offered up some light, teasing humor, a rare feat for the generally sober president, whose forays into comedy often seem forced or hammy. Rehearsals with one of the Democratic Party’s best speech coaches clearly paid off, allowing him to internalize the text and focus on conveying the emotion of the words with grace and spontaneity.”
I underlined the last two lines because therein lies my point. It’s not just reading that needs to be mastered. It’s the delivery.
When I have worked with clients on presentations and speeches, a good part of my contribution is to constructively challenge the words and thoughts in the speech – the content. My intention is not to re-write the material. It is to help the client “internalize” the content. To make all of it conscious as content, not just the words on a page. It’s difficult to do this if you are the person giving the speech. So my suggestion is: get a coach. Just like a stage actor – even a veteran – has a Director to help with this.
A coach’s job is to challenge everything in the content. If you are the speech giver, don’t get defensive. Understand that explaining, say, the purpose of the speech or a line or a word, is part of a process of commitment and internalization. It’s the process to move from a level of just getting through a read with a bit of inflection to the level where we might say the thoughts and points are lifted off the page to fly to the audience instead of dully trudging through space and too often not penetrating the audience’s consciousness. The difference is performance rather than just a read.
So, the upside of reading is that we keep on track, we have an external memory (the script) to rely on and that lessens anxiety and we don’t have to memorize. The downside of reading is that without the extra work, the rehearsal and the use of the reading techniques, the read can be flat and lifeless – a fail that undermines purpose.
Why not be spontaneous, memorize or use cards as prompts? If you can do this well, by all means, use this approach. Unfortunately, too often the preparation is not good and the performance is poor. This fail damages your personal brand.
Yes, POTUS used TOTUS for SOTUS. But, because of Obama’s ownership of the content, his rehearsals with a speech coach and his use of the teleprompters to keep his eyes up and his fear of losing his place in check, we get a review with words like “flawless”, “grace”, “spontaneity”. What more could a speech giver want?