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.

More Read A Speech? The US President Does It Well in the SOTU Speech

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,’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?