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Reading from a script is not for me

This time last year, I wrote the following in the Onlignment blog under the heading Why I’m not going to speak from a script again:

For some reason, there are lessons that take a long time to learn – however often an action leads to negative consequences, you just seem bound to repeat it. One lesson I really hope I have now learned is that reading from a script doesn’t work – at least not for me. In the past few years I have tried this in numerous situations:

  • giving speeches (such as at the E-Learning Awards a week or so back)
  • when presenting a Pecha Kucha (that’s 20 slides each displayed for 20 seconds if you’ve yet to be initiated)
  • when recording a screencast (it sounds so much better when improvised)
  • when recording a podcast (free-form interviews work much better)

There are good reasons for thinking that reading from a script will work. After all, the best TV presenters do it convincingly. And you can be absolutely sure that you’re going to cover every point clearly. However, reading from a script doesn’t work well in a face-to-face setting because it forces you to lose eye contact with the audience for sustained periods. And even when you’re recording a voice-over it’s really hard not to come over as wooden and rather boring.

Can it be made to work? Well, perhaps, but professionals have one of two advantages: either they’ve got the luxury of a teleprompter, which allows them to retain eye contact with the audience or camera; or they’ve rehearsed well enough that they’ve got so familiar with the words that they only need to refer to them periodically. As Mark Twain said,”It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.”

I’ve made two resolutions. First, to avoid having to use any type of script if at all possible. Far better to trust in your instincts and talk around some key headings. Second, where a tight structure is absolutely essential, make sure I write the words in a form that suits being spoken and not read, and then put in the hard work as actors do and learn your lines.

As a natural speaker, my father is my model here. He would quite happily get up and speak at any occasion. He never prepared and he never had a single note. He just said the right thing without fuss and sat down again. No slides and few jokes, but effortless.

So, last night I tested my resolve from last year and delivered my speech at this year’s E-Learning Awards without any script at all. I had a rough outline which I sketched out in Evernote and revised periodically over a couple of weeks. I added to this on the day to include references to new data such as the release of Towards Maturity’s 2011 benchmark report and Donald Clark’s review of the UK e-learning sector. This would have been more difficult to achieve with a highly formal speech. I ran through the key points in my mind perhaps four or five times on the day to make sure I wasn’t going to forget anything important, such as thanking the judges for all their hard work, but I was only memorising a sequence not a form of words.
Did it work? Yes. In fact it worked just fine. It is much more engaging for an audience to hear you speaking naturally rather than reading aloud, and it is much more enjoyable for you as speaker. You’ve just got to trust yourself. After all, every one of us speaks on a whole variety of topics to a whole load of different people every day of our lives. Why should a formal event be any different?

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