Lately, there seems to be a real prejudice in the public speaking world against reading a speech (as opposed to delivering it from memory).
This is a relatively new thing, and you can blame TED (the popular public speaking series) and TelePrompters, because things didn’t used to be that way.
Before explaining, though, let’s answer the question of why you would want to do such a thing!
You Might Want to Read a Speech! Why?
- Because you want to maintain close control over the tone or the timing of your speech (or both). The best way to achieve this is to write down exactly what you’re going to say, practice saying it, and stick pretty close to your script.
- Because you want to give a smooth, suave impression, which comes from moving “seamlessly” from one point to the next. The best way to achieve this is to create your speech outline, work out your transitions, practice them, and stay pretty close to your script.
- Because you want to convey effortless ease, but don’t have time to memorize your remarks. The best way to achieve this is to write down what you’re going to say, practice it, and stay pretty close to your script.
How do you stay close to your script? In each of these cases, by reading it.
And guess what? Until very recently, this was an accepted speechmaking best practice!
Back in the Day, Everyone Read Their Speeches
When Abraham Lincoln was on the train to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to give the speech that would turn out to be the most important of his Presidency (maybe, of American history), he didn’t decide to wing it. Instead, he got out paper and pen and wrote down what he wanted to say.
I don’t know whether Lincoln read from those notes when he delivered what we now call The Gettysburg Address — but if he did, I’m willing to bet that he wasn’t embarrassed to be reading.
Lincoln knew that this speech — intended to reunite the U.S. after four years of horrific civil war — needed to make a powerful impact, and he wasn’t about to leave that to chance.
Before TelePrompter, Everyone Read Their Speeches from Paper
Yes, paper. You know that white stuff that comes out of a printer and then hopefully gets recycled? (You may even have books made from this exotic material.)
People have been making speeches since roughly the dawn of human history, but they’ve only had electronic prompting systems (TelePrompters) for the last sixty-plus years.
That’s where paper came in.
If someone was giving an important speech — one that he or she absolutely wanted to nail — and there wasn’t time to memorize the whole thing, the one and only remaining choice was to read it from paper.
Look at this 1939 picture of Winston Churchill telling the House of Commons that Britain was about to enter World War II. Do you see what he’s holding in his left hand? That’s paper.
If You Don’t Want to Read Your Speech, Blame TED
Now you may wonder why — if carrying some paper onstage was good enough for Winston Churchill — so many of today’s speakers balk at doing it.
The answer, I believe, is TED.
This series of public speaking conferences (originally about Technology, Education, and Design; hence TED) has had a profound influence on all public speaking over the last 20 years. And thanks to the Internet, and the series of TEDx franchises that have popped up literally all over the world, that influence is global in scope.
One TED performance practice that has caught on widely is not using notes when you deliver a speech.
The purpose of this injunction is to make TED speeches appearance spontaneous — and it’s possible that, in its early years, TED actually featured speakers who talked off the cuff. But that hasn’t been the case for twenty years now.
Instead, the TED talks that receive national attention today are (a) carefully crafted to give a spontaneous impression, then (b) choreographed and finessed by coaches who are supplied by the TED organization, then (c) memorized, then (d) practiced ad nauseum, then (e) delivered to a live audience, while being (f) captured by a professional four-camera video team, then (g) professionally edited, and finally (h) put on the TED web site, which is where those of us who can’t pay $6000 for the live conference experience them.
And it’s not just that TED pours thousands of dollars into making each speaker look good. It’s that the speakers themselves put as much of their lives as possible on hold while they go through this training regime.
Your Audience Doesn’t Care if You Read Your Speech from Notes
Unless you’re planning to undergo the same exhaustive and months-long process that the TED speakers we love have gone through, please don’t kid yourself that not using notes will in and of itself make you look more like a world-class speaker.
Giving a good speech is what will make you look like a world-class speaker — and if using notes (or TelePrompter, or cue cards, or any technology that’s available to you) helps you to prepare, practice and deliver a better speech in the time that you have available, why would you not use them?
To look like a TED speaker?
To feel more “spontaneous”?
To impress your audience?
Trust me, your audience doesn’t care. They just want to connect with you and get value from what you’re presenting to them.
If I’ve persuaded you that it’s OK to read a speech (and I hope I have!)…
Here are some tips to making your reading more exciting.