It is not all books that are as dull as their readers.
- Henry David Thoreau
For every time you may have to give an actual speech, there may be dozens of business situations in which you have to read key words - your own script or prose inherited from others. Think of the following scenarios:
Your boss gets a promotion to the London office and leaves you to give his presentation to the executive committee.
You have a fine speech writer on staff and feel compelled to use her services.
You must read accurate and precise instructions to your staff in a way that ensures everyone gets the right information simultaneously.
Reading speeches is the established custom where you work, and trendsetters get nowhere in your company.
You just don't fully accept all that I've said about the advantages of extemporaneous speaking and simply feel more confident reading from a script.
Think about all the boring speeches you have been forced to listen to. Most scripts that are read are boring, and because my premise is that, as a speaker, you should never be boring, I find it difficult to recommend reading a speech. But for all those times when you have to or want to read, there are steps you can take to make a speech that is read as lively, interesting, and entertaining as one that is given from notes - starting with a concerted effort not to be boring. The lively reading approach isn't easy, but mastering it is well worth the effort.
Don't make the mistake of thinking that having every word in front of you means you can practice less. As an actress, I gave many performances without scripts, but I also performed in several productions from visible scripts - where we stood in front of lecterns and read our parts. We spent just as much time in rehearsal with productions when we read from scripts as we did with traditional productions when we memorized. It is just as hard to read and be outstanding as it is to memorize and shine.
If you are extraordinarily fortunate and have a speech writer who knows your style and is a good writer, you can get by with one or two practices. But that person is rare, and a talented speech writer is usually expensive too. In most cases, you will have to tinker with the words yourself.
The material you need to read can take on many forms. For example, it can be a straight speech or a list of compiled data or regulations. It can be very straightforward and not prone to embellishment: You may have to read a 20-minute report to the board on safety rules and regulations in your department. Of all the techniques to make your information interesting, practice is the most important. Don't expect to just pick up the information, read it, and bowl over your audience. Reading aloud is a skill in itself.
Beyond sheer practice is belief. You must believe in your message and really want to communicate it to your group. Any audience will be turned off by a reluctant reader who can't wait to finish. At a recent function, I actually heard the speaker, a well-known entertainer say, "I'm going to read my few words and then we can get the hell out of here." Signs alerting your audience to the fact that you would rather be elsewhere don't have to be this overt; an inadvertent sigh can communicate the same message.
The purpose of what you are reading must be totally clear to you. Write out the purpose in simple sentences. This is essential if you are working with a professional writer, and he or she doesn't know your ultimate objective. Your purpose should be prominent in your subconscious and conscious thoughts at all times. It helps you to stay centered and gets your message through.
Read the material several times. Check pronunciations of any difficult words or names. The last name of Hana Mandlikova, the tennis player, could be pronounced MandLIK'ova or MandliKO'va. Which pronunciation is right? It's the job of the speaker to find out.
Separate the whole script into logical parts. Examine each part for its content and intention. Study the words that are being used and the feelings, attitudes, and emotions beneath them. If the writer has used an expression such as "deep in the city," is that meant to evoke feelings of excitement and activity, or gloom and despair?
Then pay attention to your verbal transitions. Are they clear? Are you going to add any physical transitions of your own? Does the script build toward a conclusion, and if so, how is this accomplished? What can you do to complement the writing? (For example, if you were using Julius Caesar's inspiring words, "I came, I saw, I conquered," you might want to raise your arm at the conclusion.)
To increase your overall familiarity with what you are reading, practice as much as you can. Work with the material at least a day before you give your talk, and try to allow a week to prepare in case there is additional information you need.
Once you are familiar with the material, you will need to personalize it, both for yourself and your audience. Make it yours; eliminate any expressions or words that don't sound like you. If you are giving a motivational speech to your department and you seldom use words of more than three syllables, don't call people lackadaisical or ethereal (even if they are). Look for places where you can inject a personal story, or at least start with one. Very often, the best place to personalize will be at the beginning. But don't make the mistake of telling a warm personal story and then totally switching gears into an impersonal, read speech. A speech needs to be personalized throughout.
Try to use personal pronouns. Don't say "Employees will resist change if it is not presented in a favorable light." Make sure you say your employees or our employees or just you if you are addressing your employees directly. People listening to you read should also feel as if you are talking to them. Much of the power of our great presidents was directly related to their ability to personalize their speeches. Franklin Delano Roosevelt could personalize so well that on the eve of his death, a young soldier said, "I felt as if he knew me, and I felt as if he liked me." Professor Larry J. Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, once said about President Clinton, "He pierces you with his eyes. He knows your emotions. He cares about you. Personally. It may be totally phony, or it may not be, but he really seems to love you. It may be the rhetorical equivalent of cotton candy, but it works." You want your audience to feel the same way about you.
Using emphasis is the greatest antidote for relieving boredom. Emphasize your important points and de-emphasize what is not crucial. In doing so, you add variety, that delightful and necessary ingredient. Without vocal variety, no matter how potent your speech is on paper, it will sound dull and boring coming out of your mouth.
Great actors and speakers know the secrets of emphasis, which are easy to emulate. One is physical: You can easily make marks telling yourself what to emphasize right on your script; integrating them into your vocal delivery takes listening and practice. You need to become aware of your own vocal patterns so you can make changes in pitch, rhythm, and volume. It takes effort to be on; it's not easy to keep an audience with you. But the people in your audience will love you for not boring them. Even more important, they will listen and learn if you keep their attention. Remember that if you don't have their attention, you're not communicating.
First go through your script and mark all the thought/breath groups. These are the places where you'll need to pause to take a breath or to move on to a new idea. Don't follow the written punctuation. Here's an example of a paragraph with written punctuation followed by the same paragraph with thought/breath group punctuation.
No one can understand America with his brains. It is too big, too puzzling. It tempts, and it deceives. But many an illiterate immigrant has felt the true America in his pulse before he ever crossed the Atlantic. The descendant of the Pilgrims still remains ignorant of our national life if he does not respond to its glorious zest, its throbbing energy, its forward urge, its uncomprehending belief in the future, its sense of the fresh and mighty world just beyond today's horizon. Whitman's "Pioneers, O Pioneers" is one of the truest of American poems because it beats with the pulse of this onward movement, because it is full of this laughing and conquering fellowship and undefeated faith.
No one can understand America with his brains/ It is too big/ too puzzling/ It tempts/ and it deceives/ But many an illiterate immigrant has felt the true America in his pulse/ before he ever crossed the Atlantic/ The descendant of the Pilgrims still remains ignorant of our national life/ if he does not respond to its glorious zest/ its throbbing energy/its forward urge/ its uncomprehending belief in the future/ its sense of the fresh and mighty world just beyond today's horizon/ Whitman's "Pioneers, O Pioneers" is one of the truest of American poems/because it beats with the pulse of this onward movement/ because it is full of this laughing and conquering fellowship and undefeated faith/
(Reprinted from Bliss Perry, "The American Mind" in First Principles of Speech Training.)
Then underline the words that carry meaning, the ones that will require emphasis. You should also de-emphasize all the other words. Here is the same paragraph with word emphasis added:
No one can understand America with his brains/ It is too big/ too puzzling/ It tempts/ and it deceives/ But many an illiterate immigrant has felt the true America in his pulses/ before he ever crossed the Atlantic/ The descendant of the Pilgrims still remains ignorant of our national life/ if he does not respond to its glorious zest/ its throbbing energy/ its forward urge/ its uncomprehending belief in the future/ its sense of the fresh and mighty world just beyond to-day's horizon/ Whitman's "Pioneers, O Pioneers" is one of the truest of American poems/ because it beats with the pulse of this onward movement/ because it is full of this laughing and conquering fellowship and undefeated faith/
In Chapter 8, I discussed how to achieve variety through emphasis in detail, but let's summarize briefly here. To gain emphasis you can:
Add force or volume.
Change your pitch, intonation, and inflection.
Vary your pace.
Alter your rhythm.
Vary your attitude.
Listening to yourself is so crucial because you actually hear yourself change tone, pitch, volume, and so on. Many scripts that are read are uninteresting because readers follow this pattern: They start a sentence on a high pitch with great volume and then fade out as the sentence concludes. Like any pattern, this speaking style soon becomes monotonous. But you can add variety by changing the pattern. Be unpredictable. Pause before an important point; take off your glasses and look around at your audience. Reduce your volume before an important point instead of getting louder. Allow your creativity to emerge. Be dramatic. You may feel silly, but you'll keep your audience with you. People resent being bored. Whatever you do to prevent monotony will be secretly - and overtly - appreciated.
Look at those in your audience and simply talk to them: An effective speech should be an extended conversation. Even a written speech must sound warm and caring when read. Use the word you. Look for ways to bring the members of your audience into your script, to get them to join in with you. Instead of phrases such as "this next point is..." try "as we move together into this next area...."
Connect with your audience through your words, gestures, eyes, and language. Even though you are behind a lectern and on a podium, find places in your script where you can reach out or emphasize a point with gestures. (You can write these places in the margins as reminders.) Direct yourself when to pause, look up, or connect with your eyes. One of the greatest dangers in reading a speech is that you lose eye contact. That's another reason why practice is so important. Don't allow your eyes to become glued to the script. Spend extra time looking at your audience.
With written language, you can refer back or reread. When you are making a speech, your audience doesn't have that luxury. All they have are your words, in the present moment.
Because written language and conversational language are different, adopt a conversational style: Use contractions, shorter sentences, common words, and the active voice. You can see the difference yourself between the two passages below:
The essential element, noticeably absent, from this assembled congregation, was a cohesiveness, which immediately materialized when the charismatic leader approached the platform.
We weren't working together. We lacked a team spirit. But as soon as Tom took over, we joined forces and rallied behind him. And we're still with him.
One style is dull and removed; the other is vivid simply because it describes actual people's actions.
Use short, simple sentences. Break up compound sentences.
Wrong way: The test results, after elimination of spurious data and normalization of the remainder, with application of standard statistical techniques, were positive.
Better way: We took the test data, threw out the bad points, and normalized the rest. To analyze the results we used standard statistical methods. The results, we were delighted to see, were positive.
Good spoken English may mean writing ungrammatically.
Wrong way: There were several days about which she could not account.
Better way: There were a few days she couldn't account for.
Stay away from using jargon, "tech speak," or acronyms.
Watch your word order.
If you say, "James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and Aaron Burr - they all wore wigs," you don't say why the names are being mentioned until the end. Better to put it up front.
Make your transitions clear and easy to spot.
Example: The three main problems are: 1, 2, 3.
Avoid generalities when using adjectives and adverbs. People can't imagine generalities.
Wrong way: He did a good job.
Better way: He submitted his work without one grammatical error.
Plant your facts: Build suspense by using rhetorical questions.
Example: What are the real results of their innovative research?
Don't be afraid to make powerful, single words statements or phrases such as, "Unbelievable!" or "Outstanding!"
Always read your speech out loud, to "hear" it, as you're writing it. If you stumble over a long sentence or one that does not flow well, change it.
Repeat, emphasize, capsulize, query.
Example: Let me say that again. We are spending 1 billion - 'B' not 'M' - for foreign oil.
Really relate to your audience and personalize your message.
Because reading a script is a physical activity, here is a checklist of steps that make the physical process easier.
Use heavy paper - no less than 20-pound; 60-pound is better.
Be sure you have a lectern wide enough for sliding the pages to the other side as you read them. (Do not staple them together.)
Be sure all the pages are numbered.
Never end a page in the middle of a sentence or thought group.
Use only one side of the page.
Leave a wide margin for directions to yourself.
Double- or triple-space.
Use a typeface that is easy to read.
Use a large, bold font.
Mark your script for thought/breath groups and emphasis, and put in all your self-directions on the wide right-hand margins.
If you follow these steps and make sure you familiarize, personalize, emphasize, and harmonize, you will become one of those rare speakers who not only present well but make the written word come alive. And the next chapter will show you how to use that ability in meetings, those frequent forums where the written word plays such a key role.
Select an editorial from your local paper and prepare it for oral reading. Practice by recording your reading and then play it back and critique yourself.
Find a narrative poem and prepare it for oral reading; then follow the steps for the first project.
If you have children, choose a lively bedtime story such as Dr. Seuss's Sam I Am, and practice reading it with as much vocal variety as possible. Children love repetition, so practice until you are really good with it.