Read a Speech Rather Than Memorize? Sure. Just Do It Well.

Imagine the anxiety of having one foot on one train going east and the other foot on a train going west. That’s what many executives go through when they have to give a speech or make a presentation. They are conflicted between giving it without notes (the eastbound) and needing a written text (the westbound).

I have just encountered this anxiety with two different clients. The best advice I gave them was to stop worrying and just read the speech. But do it well.

Why is this good advice? Because it deals with their reality, unlike much of the standard advice on making presentations. Their reality is that they do not have the time to absorb 20 minutes of presentation that must be fairly precise. Their reality demands precision because, as in both client’s situations, what they were going to say had to be approved by lawyers and others, and what they said had to – for compliance and legal reasons – be exactly what was approved.

Another reason my advice worked for them: business audiences are accustomed to people reading speeches. That’s not an issue. Reading one badly is. Speaking without notes can be problematic. Some people who speak without notes do it brilliantly and the communication is powerful. Many people who speak without notes are good, but the communications is not always great – the point is lost. And some people who speak without notes are atrocious and the communication that results is very negative for the speaker. (If you have the time and the ability to answer the questions below and speak without notes, do it.)

I can tell you that in both client cases I mentioned at the start, resolving the old “memorize versus read” conflict helped them.

So, how to read a speech well?

Since content drives good performance and good performance helps the audience listen to and accept the content, I always start with a few questions that impact content.

1)      Who is the audience? What do they care about? What do they want to hear from you? What will keep their interest? Defensively, what will let their brains leave the room? (Or worse, let them focus solely on you and your performance and ignore the content?) Do you know someone in the audience who is representative of their needs? Do you care about them?

2)      What’s the purpose of the presentation? Is it to inspire trust? Transfer data? Fill a spot on the agenda? Entertain? Get exposure for your brand?

3)      Now, what structure is appropriate for the need and the purpose? There are many structures – the Churchillian structure is one. It uses one dominant argument/point/theme and has everything else support that dominant point. The Rule of Three structure that I like best starts with a problem statement – one that gets the audience to nod in agreement that it relates to them -  followed by a generic solution that should elicit another nod of agreement, and beg the question in their minds: “Where do I get it?” The third piece is the branded solution that delivers on that question and is the speaker’s payoff.

If the speaker has had input into the presentation through the above questions, then their familiarity with the purpose and content of the speech should be high, even if someone else has written the speech for them. (This exercize also helps the speechwriter. Otherwise, they do what research they can, guess the rest and write a draft.)

The speaker should never review drafts of speeches silently. They can’t get a feel for the language, the pacing, and the degree of reading difficulty without reading it out loud. By reading aloud, they not only make the changes to the content they want but they start the performance practice part of reading a speech well.

If the speaker knows why they are talking and to whom, and has an expected outcome, the communication is almost always superior. The bonus is that the text tends to stick in the memory bank as well. This results in an easy transition from a need to read every word to the eyes-up technique of “scoop and dump”.

When the speaker has a familiarity with the text and the purpose behind it, there is less need to be tied to reading. Because the brain is familiar with the text, the speaker can look down and scan a short piece of text – the scoop – lift their eyes to the audience and deliver the exact words to them – the dump. It takes practice, but becomes progressively easier as one does so. Finally, the audience almost perceives it as a “no notes” performance because the speaker’s eyes are up and on them so much.

Another way to make the scoop and dump technique easier is to mark up the text. This means putting visual cues into the text in order to reduce thinking (the main source of disfluencies or screw-ups). I have/ marked-up/this sentence/ to show you where my/ out-loud /reading breaks and emphasis/naturally go.  Read it aloud with the breaks and punch the underlined words. Now take out the marks and read the sentence aloud. Which has more impact? Which is easier to read with eyes up?

A speech structured for the eye will sound like it. A speech structured for the mouth should look like it.

Other techniques to help read a speech well. Use large type on the page, well spaced and use only the top portion of the page. This helps the reader keep their head up and assists with scooping and dumping.

Do not grab the lectern. Some people think holding on eases their tension. I learned from the engineers long ago that if you stress a rigid frame –and the speaker’s skeleton is a rigid frame – by squeezing your hands together or squeezing the sides of the lectern, it only makes it quiver/shake more. There should be space between the speaker and the lectern. The hands should be together about mid torso or resting gently on the edge of the lectern. A great way to relieve stress and increase the power of the voice is to let the hands find their natural expression throughout the speech.

And, finally, speak to the audience individually with short, one or two second eye contact. Talk to them, rather than at or over them.

So, if circumstances call for reading a speech or presentation, just do it. But do it well.