Reading a Speech
Most public speaking advisors counsel against reading texts (for a contrary view, see Jezra Kaye in Resources below); however, there are occasions when it is necessary or expedient to read from a text, in which case there are a number of techniques that can help.
In his article, How to Make Reading a Speech Not Like Reading a Speech (reference below), Andrew Dlugan notes the drawbacks of reading from a script, but that it may be necessary on some occasions. (The bullet points that follow are direct quotes from his article.)
Drawbacks of reading from a script
- Your eyes are on your page, and not connecting with your audience.
- Your eyes are on your page, and not reading feedback from your audience.
- Your head is tipped down, which inhibits your vocal projection.
- You are locked into the words, not as free to introduce a conversational style.
- You risk skipping words or lines, and sounding foolish.
- Your vocal variety tends to be limited, as you concentrate on simply “getting the words out” instead of worrying how they sound.
When reading a script is acceptable, or even expected
- You are speaking at a highly formal occasion (e.g., a commencement speech)
- You are delivering a particularly emotional speech (e.g., a wedding speech, a eulogy)
- You are forced to read word-for-word by lawyers or campaign managers (e.g., a corporate statement; a political speech)
- A speechwriter has written your speech.
- Life prevented you from preparing adequately. (Don’t let this happen often… your speech really would go better if you prepare.)
- Within a larger speech, you are reading a passage from another work (e.g., a poem; a book excerpt).
- You are a brand new speaker, and you haven’t developed the confidence yet to go without a script.
Strategies for creating the optimal page
- Don’t hand-print or write your speech. I don’t know a person in the world who writes or prints as neatly as Times New Roman font. Even slight imperfections in your penmanship make you work harder than necessary when reading. Type it in and print it out.
- Print with a large font size — larger than you would typically use. For example, I typically print documents with 9 or 10 point font. When I have to read during a speech, I make sure it is 12, 14, or 18-point font. Larger typography makes it easier to read, and easier to find your place as you look up and then back down again.
- Print using multiple narrow columns. It’s harder to read wide columns of text (your eye is strained to “wrap” to the next line), so format it into two or three columns.
- Use subheadings. You won’t read these, of course, but using subheadings can help to structure the speech on the page, and is a good signal to take an extended pause.
- Use line breaks to mark pauses, even within sentences. This technique is wonderfully explained in Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln (read the Six Minutes review). The idea is to divide the sentence into bite-sized chunks. Between each chunk, insert a slight pause, which is marked by the line break. Skilled speakers can use this technique to create a balanced cadence that overcomes some of the drawbacks of reading.
- Use ellipses to mark pauses, … or perhaps words that should be draaawn out for effect.
- Use italics or bolding to mark words, phrases, or entire sentences that require extra emphasis. Pick one style and use it consistently, so as not to confuse yourself or your speaker. I suggest not using underlining for this purpose as it will often truncate the bottoms of letters making them harder to read.
- Use italics or bolding or color to mark linked words, which may be separated by several other words or sentences. Consider this a form of super-emphasis.
- Put instructional annotations (not meant to be read) in the margins. For years, I used to write “BREATHE” and “SLOW DOWN” in red pen on my speeches.
What you can do with your body
- As much as possible, position your printed page high and away from your body. (i.e. if you are using a lectern, make sure it isn’t set too low, and try to read from the upper part.) This will keep your gaze closer to your audience, and also allow better voice projection.
- Don’t forget about gestures. It’s hard to incorporate them, but do your best to avoid a completely lifeless body.
- Use expressive facial gestures while you read. Though it may seem counter-intuitive to use facial gestures even when you are facing downward, forcing yourself to generate appropriate facial gestures will bring your vocal variety alive.
Jezra Kaye, 2014, How to Read a Speech, YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJuiYQzlgis, accessed 31 January 2016.
Jezra Kaye, If You’re Reading from Notes When You Deliver a Speech, Read with Pride; Don’t Hide! at http://speakupforsuccess.com/10323/public-speaking-tip-51-read-with-pride/, accessed 31 January 2016.
Andrew Dlugan, 2011, How to Make Reading a Speech Not Like Reading a Speech, at http://sixminutes.dlugan.com/reading-your-speech/, accessed 31 January 2016.
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Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 31 January 2016.
Image: iMindMap, at http://imindmap.com/blog/the-worst-thing-to-do-in-a-speech-or-presentation/, accessed 31 January 2016.