If you never have to stand in front of an audience and deliver a presentation, you can stop reading. For the rest of you, I am often asked, “Should I bring notes on stage, or script my presentation word for word?” As with most of life, the answer is never simple. Before I get into the meat of the issue, let’s dispense with one question right off the bat. Unless you are giving a legal deposition, never script your presentation. The two most common reasons people script speeches are: they are too nervous to face the audience and talk, or they are worried about forgetting important points of information.
If you are uncomfortable facing and audience, reading off a script won’t make you appear any more comfortable. In fact, because you are trying to follow words on a page, you are more likely to stumble when you fall off script (which always happens). If you are worried about forgetting something, bring notes on stage. If you have key words to follow, your natural conversational tone will take over, and you will appear more genuine and authoritative; and the notes will make sure you tick off important points as you go.
There is another important reason not to script presentations. When we write, we use more words than when we speak; we also use different vocabulary. It is rare that someone can read a prepared speech and not sound canned. The result is a disconnect from the audience, and a loss of trust on the part of the listener.
So, if you can’t script a presentation, how do you improve your speaking skills? An effective tool comes from an unlikely source; stand-up comedy. Comedians have the same challenge as speakers, they must remember important points in their presentation, and yet they must appear to be speaking off the top of their head. Comedians use what is called a set list; a list of key words that take them from one piece of material (called a bit) to the next. The best comedians take honing their craft to the next level. They record their act, then afterwards they transcribe their set word for word; essentially creating a script after the fact. This allows them to examine their act on paper and look for better word choices, clear up unnecessary or meandering segments, and rearrange material for better flow.
Besides reviewing their act on paper, disciplined comedians also watch themselves on video. They look for distracting mannerisms. These are usually repetitive movements that people aren’t aware they are doing unless they see it on screen. They watch for movement and physicality that either supports or detracts from their message. Anyone who has seen themselves on video can attest that it can be very uncomfortable. Few people like the way they look or sound on tape, so good performers must develop an objectivity; the ability to look at themselves on screen as if they were an audience member. Gaining objectivity helps us improve our style without getting rid of the things that make us personable.
Years ago, I was acquainted with a successful news anchor. He reached the top of the #14 media market in the country, and was eventually hired in Los Angeles, the #2 market. I asked how he gained the skills to be a top-notch news anchor, and he said, “I review every single news broadcast I deliver. I evaluate my performance as if I were someone sitting in his or her living room and I ask myself, ‘Would I like watching this, or would I turn the channel?’” I thought about what my friend said, and I thought about the thousands of conferences I have attended over the years. I thought about how many speakers made me want to change the channel.
Few comedians, or news anchors, follow through with the discipline of transcribing their performance and reviewing themselves on tape; but the best ones do. I do it every so often, and every time I do, I am surprised at what I learn about my performance. Even if you can’t transcribe and review yourself after every presentation, do it as often as you can. It is the only way to make sure the audience doesn’t want to change the channel.
Stevie Ray is a keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.