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Public Speaking 101: Should You Read from a Script or Not?

There are four ways to deliver a speech: reciting it from memory, learning it by heart, using notes for reference, and reading it from a script word for word. The method you should use will depend on the type of speaking engagement and the personal circumstances you find yourself in.

Memorizing your speech is rarely a good idea because the artificiality of it makes your delivery sound stilted. You may risk sounding monotonous when the natural inflection of your voice disappears. Also, it’s not a guarantee that you’ll deliver a seamless presentation because your focus is shifted from getting the message across to getting the words right.

Learning your speech by heart and trying to wing it without notes can work. However, it can be risky because when you lose your train of thought, you’ll have nothing to rely on to get you back on track. The best method is to use notes because at least you have something to fall back on when you lose your footing. It can also help you transition from one idea to the next.

While learning all this is good, we’re not really here to talk about the three ways of delivering a presentation. Instead, we’re here to understand the fourth: reading directly from a script. Script reading is a practice that is highly discouraged, unless you’re a person of politics who needs to deliver a speech exactly as it’s written. If you’re a student delivering a report or a business executive making a pitch, there’s no excuse for you to read from your notes at all. This is a basic public speaking convention that you should know by default.

Why Reading from a Script Is Discouraged

You may be tempted to bring a script to your next public speaking gig and read it word for word. It’s luring because you don’t have to memorize or learn your speech by heart anymore. Everything you have to say is literally in your hands. It makes you feel secure because, in theory, you can’t lose your train of thought. It’s effortless preparation-wise. So, if it’s so reassuring, why do professionals advise against it? There are plenty of reasons, and we’ll explain three of them:

  • A written speech rarely translates to an oral discussion. We don’t speak the same way as we write. Words that are written for the eye (i.e. grammatical, syntactic, generally well-structured) don’t always sound well to the ears. If you want to sound conversational, you need to write the same way as you talk.
  • A script shifts attention from the audience. Reading from a script requires you to look at your notes, and this shifts your gaze away from the audience and limits your interaction with them. As a result, your delivery loses the personal touch it needs. You’re basically just standing there aloof, with your audience feeling left out. They feel like they’re listening to a monologue rather than taking part in a dialogue in which their opinions matter.
  • Your words and actions are measured and limited. A script limits both your words and actions. You’re not free to use whatever manner of delivery you like because you’re corralled into the four edges of your cheat sheet. Aside from this, reading from a script can add a physical barrier between you and the audience: a lectern. This barrier will only fortify the walls you’ve built, ultimately resulting to a disconnect.

Planning for the Inevitable: Tips When Reading Your Speech

Without a doubt, no matter how many times you’re warned, you’ll always find an excuse to deviate from what’s recommended. So, to help you minimize the repercussions of reading from a script during a public speaking engagement, here are four tips for you to apply:

1. Employ the scoop-and-speak technique

For this to work, you need to print your notes in large font and have them written on the top portion of a document so that your eyes don’t have to stray down too far. Every time you pause, look at your notes, and before reciting what you’ve scooped, look at the audience again. Eye contact is crucial in public speaking. When reading from your notes, you don’t have to keep it a secret and act surreptitiously. Just chill out and act natural.

2. Draft a dialogue, not a declaration

Even if you’re reading from a script, you should try to not look like it. When drafting your speech, make sure to use common conversational words that sound natural when spoken. Use informal language; otherwise, you’ll just sound foreign and distant. Be mindful of the natural cadences and rhythms of spontaneous speech, and make sure to apply them throughout your presentation. To improve your vocal variety, you can adjust your facial gestures to match your words.

3. Don’t use your slide deck as a script

Your PowerPoint presentation is not a script, so don’t treat it as such. Instead, make separate notes that you can use as guide. You can also use the Notes feature in PowerPoint. It has a Presenter’s View that can let you see your notes for a selected slide without the audience seeing them. Just make sure to practice using your script beforehand so that you won’t get lost in the middle of the presentation.

4. Mind the structuring of your text

Break long blocks of text by using headings, subheadings, line breaks, and pauses. Use signals to help you break down the text and cue you as to where to begin and end, or what to stress and blend. You can even add instructional annotations along the margins to make everything crystal clear.

When you’re in a pickle and you have no choice but to read from a script, follow the tips above. However, in any other situation, try to explore other ways of delivering your presentation. Don’t limit yourself to the four edges of a page. Instead, allow your mind to roam free without straying too far from your core message. This is, after all, what being an effective public speaker means.

Resources:

Dlugan, Andrew. “How to Make Reading a Speech Not Like Reading a Speech.” Six Minutes. December 7, 2011. sixminutes.dlugan.com/reading-your-speech

Marshall, Lisa B. “Read, Memorize, or Use Notes.” Quick and Dirty Tips. September 23, 2010. www.quickanddirtytips.com/business-career/public-speaking/read-memorize-or-use-notes

Matthews, Alan. “Pros and Cons of Using a Script When Speaking.” Alan Matthews Training. May 13, 2015. alanmatthewstraining.com/2015/05/pros-and-cons-of-using-a-script-when-speaking

Wyeth, Sims. “Do You Read from a Script? Should You” Presentation Guru. April 20, 2017. www.presentation-guru.com/do-you-read-from-a-script-should-you

Don’t Depend on Your PowerPoint Presentation Scripts

Have you ever seen a theater play where actors read their scripts onstage? Luckily, professional actors rehearse and deliver their lines naturally. The same goes for most public speakers.

Preparing a script isn’t a bad thing, but it can make your speech less effective.

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How can you fully engage your audience if you’re focused on reading a piece of paper or whatever’s projected onscreen?

In reality, great presenters write notes whenever they have speeches. This is to show that even professionals also rely on scripts to avoid getting lost in their topic.

Why You Shouldn’t Depend on Your Script

As a public speaker, your goal is to engage the audience. There’s nothing wrong with looking at your notes, but you can’t rely on them all the time or you may distance yourself from the crowd.

Scripts serve as your guide, but reading notes prevent you from connecting with your audience. Imagine yourself as an audience member whom the speaker doesn’t make any eye contact with. How would that feel?

Do your listeners a favor and connect emotionally with them with just a small glance here and there.

The Power of Your Brain

Writing down your script organizes your thought. Reading your script also lets you present ideas completely. Some presenters try to memorize their pitch so as not to depend on their notes.

There may be unexpected situations like corrupted files or technical problems before your PowerPoint presentation. That’s why you should rely more on how your brain works for you.

It’s still advisable to incorporate notes into your PowerPoint slides. However, being knowledgeable about your topic boosts your confidence to speak without looking or reading any guides.

According to Gallo (2010), you can make your speech more natural and conversational with these steps:

1. Write your notes in PowerPoint’s Notes section.

Construct your ideas to form four to five sentences. Don’t edit excessively. Just let your thoughts flow.

2. Emphasize the keyword from each sentence by highlighting it.

Practice by reading and familiarizing yourself with your script. Glance at the key words to remember them.

3. Remove unnecessary words from your notes.

Keep only the keywords as reminders.

4. Memorize the key idea in each slide.

Think of that one main point that you want your audience to recall.

5. Rehearse the whole presentation without notes.

Use your PowerPoint deck as your visual aid. Remember each significant idea behind your message.

Practice is still the best way to stop depending on your scripts. Using the above guidelines lets you speak naturally in front of your audience and focus on dealing with them.

Plan your PowerPoint presentation, pinpoint your main ideas, and practice, practice, practice —you’ll never have to glance at a note card ever again.

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References

3 Tips for Handling Unexpected Events During Presentations.” SlideGenius, Inc. 2015. Accessed May 29, 2015.
Gallo, Carmine. The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs: How to be Insanely Great in Front of Any Audience. New York. McGraw-Hill, 2010.
Presentation Tips: 5 Quick Steps to Audience Engagement.” SlideGenius, Inc. December 16, 2014. Accessed May 29, 2015.