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Do You Read from a Script? Should You?

presenter reading a script on stage
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Is your presentation a document to be read or an experience to be shared? The answer should be clear, but for the nervous presenter that leaves an uncomfortable quandary. What is the best way to deliver it so that your audience can fully connect with you and your message? Will using a script help you or hinder you? In this article, Sims Wyeth looks at both the pros and cons to guide you to reach your own conclusion for your own situation.

 

When it’s time to stand up in front of a group of people and make your best effort to persuade them to see things your way, the pressure is undeniably ON.

It’s only natural to want to feel in control, and having a neatly typed script in front of you – one that clearly states every point you need to make in the precise order you want to make it – certainly seems appealing.

But is it the best way to go? Many will tell you, “No”; they will tell you that your best bet is to internalize the message so your delivery will seem more natural and spontaneous.

But I’ve seen both approaches work well…and fail miserably. Written scripts that are read can be electrifying, and presentations that are internalized can be deadly. Preparation, sensitivity to the audience, and delivery will carry the day in almost all cases.

Let’s review:

 

Positives about Reading a Script

  • Your ideas are laid out clearly – in black and white – so that you can deliver your complete message with carefully crafted words. This is highly important in situations such as The State of the Union Address, when what you say will be part of the historical record, or when there is a great need to be precise, such as thanking a long list of dignitaries in the audience.
  • Reading a script makes you feel more secure because you know you won’t go blank. You can always look down at your text and carry on.
  • Reading a script minimizes your rehearsal time. The real work is done when the script is finished. Yes, you do have to practice reading it aloud, but if you are familiar with the contents of the pages, your rehearsal may be relatively quick and easy.
  • Reading a script makes you appear to be prepared, intelligent, and maybe even academic. After all, at many academic conferences, scholars are invited to read. I am told such conferences are rarely riveting entertainment.

 

Negatives about reading a script

  • You’re reading written prose, so you will sound formal and more distant. We don’t speak in complete sentences, and the rhythm of formal prose is very different from the cadences of spontaneous speech. Actors train for years to be able to make written scripts sound “real” or conversational. Few people outside of the theater have this ability. Reagan had it, but he was an actor.
  • Your ability to maintain eye contact with your listeners is limited. This means it’s harder for you to convey a sense of conviction and belief. As a result, you may try to manipulate your voice to indicate conviction, which may add to your problems of inauthenticity.
  • When you read a script, it is also difficult for you to read your audience. After all, your eyes are on the page to ensure that you don’t flub your lines. Therefore, if you lose your audience, or offend them in some way, it’s harder for you to make adjustments. Making adjustments is the meat of being in dialogue with an audience.
  • With a script, the audience does not get to see you thinking on your feet, performing under pressure, and demonstrating your best qualities of leadership.
  • When you read a script, you will probably stand behind a lectern. You are well-protected from the audience by the lectern itself, and by the wall of words that you plan to recite to them.
  • You, therefore, have difficulty creating a sense of intimacy with your audience, and audiences crave intimacy with speakers. They want to know who you really are. They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

 

Positives of Internalizing a Message

  • Without a script, you are free to wander away from the lectern, move into the crowd, engage in dialogue with members of the audience, move over to your PowerPoint screen and point something out, or perch on a chair or a table and be entirely informal.
  • You look more accessible as a person. Your listeners are more attentive because you are actually speaking from the heart (or from memory). Or they are attentive because they expect the unexpected: they are not sure what you’re going to say next. To them, you may appear to be improvising.
  • You can maintain eye contact constantly. You can watch the faces of your listeners and respond to what you see. You are not constrained by a text, and therefore your speech or presentation approximates dialogue. Your presentation is more like an interactive lecture than a formal address, and we know from research that an interactive audience is more easily persuaded than an audience that is not asked to participate.
  • The audience sees you thinking on your feet, and therefore you display qualities of character that require courage and confidence.
  • Internalizing a message means that, while the words will change slightly every time you deliver the message, the core content will not. In fact, you will find new and better ways to say what you mean if you give the talk multiple times.
  • The danger of going blank, or losing your train of thought, gives you an electrical charge that is gripping for the audience. Your energy level is high which ignites the curiosity and attention of your listeners.

 

Negatives of Internalizing a Message

  • It is hard work. It takes time to rehearse aloud early and often so that your talk is planted in your memory.
  • You run the risk of going blank, losing your place, and suffering the embarrassment of total melt down. Nevertheless, if you rehearse enough, this will not happen to you.

 

For what it’s worth, in my experience written scripts in business are a liability. We expect our experts to be able to talk about their area of expertise without the aid of a text.

And business leaders, although they may not be experts in all aspects of the business, need to convey their leadership expertise by creating a bond with their listeners by getting away from a text, and into the ears and eyes – hearts and minds – of those they lead and seek to influence.

If you’re not ready to throw away your script altogether, read what Amy Wolff thinks about using notes when you present.

Sims Wyeth
Sims Wyeth is the president of Sims Wyeth & Co., an executive development firm devoted to the art and science of speaking persuasively. Sims specializes in 1:1 coaching and small group workshops. He believes that while the delivery of a presentation is key, the structure of it is often more important. Sims is also the author of The Essentials of Persuasive Public Speaking.
Sims Wyeth
Sims Wyeth
Sims Wyeth

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