How to Make Reading a Speech Not Like Reading a Speech

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Reading a speech is not the recommended way to deliver a speech.

But, there are many occasions where you may find yourself in exactly this situation, whether due to the circumstances of the event or unavoidable constraints on time. Or, maybe you’ve got to read a speech that you haven’t written!

When you must read a speech, are there ways to enhance your delivery? Two Six Minutes readers approach this question from different perspectives:

Patricia McArver writes:

How should a speechwriter mark up copy so that the speaker will deliver the message with emphasis and pauses in the right places? As a writer, you think it’s obvious, but that’s not always the case.

Jacob Miller asks:

Do you have any tips for annotating a speech? When I try to read my speeches, I frequently get lost in the print, and sometimes I put the emphasis in the wrong places. Is there anything I can do other than the obvious — practicing more?

When is it okay to read a speech?

Although I strongly encourage you to read your speeches as rarely as possible, there are occasions when it is acceptable, or even expected. These include:

  • 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.

The drawbacks of reading from a script

Once you are committed to reading your speech (or a portion of it), it’s helpful to consider the drawbacks so that you can attempt to compensate for them.

Negative effects of reading include:

  • 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.

Creating the best printed speech

Whether you are writing your own speech, or writing one for someone else to deliver, there are several strategies for creating an optimal page, including:

  • 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 can you do with your body?

The printed page acts a bit like handcuffs, restraining your gestures and locking your body position in non-optimal ways. Still, there are a few things you can do to improve the situation.

  • 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.

Last words…

Minimize reading your speeches. For most settings, your delivery will be much more effective if you free yourself of the page. If you can only memorize a few sentences, then memorize your opening and closing words.

Don’t accept the “I didn’t have time to learn it” excuse from yourself repeatedly. You owe it to yourself and to your future audiences to break free of the page.

All of these techniques above can be utilized to prepare yourself for rehearsals. Working from a well-annotated printed speech, you will find it easier to practice and gradually learn the speech. (Of course, you should also be editing and revising as you rehearse.)

Your Turn: What’s Your Opinion?

Do you have any tips for marking up your speech so it is easier to read or learn?

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Comments icon8 Comments

  1. Well written, Andrew!

    I always try to send the emcee my Introduction several days before I present. (Of course, I bring several copies with me, also.)

    I have it marked in BOLD and Colors with an explanation of the importance of the Introduction and instructions for reading it.

    After reading your Post, I need to narrow my margins!

    Thanks fo the advice!

  2. Alain says:

    Very interesting!
    To complement these advices, when you look at the audience put a finger on the last read word; it will then be very easy to continue the speech without interruption when you’ll look back at your paper…

  3. Great article. I’m really enjoying the 12 days of ask Six Minutes. Good to see you updating more regularly.

  4. Use a teleprompter!

  5. Dylan says:

    hahaha, I keep finding myself reverting back to your very articles. I prepared one speech perfectly with memorization and comfortable execution and am ready to present it, yet my second speech does not have the time necessary for proper preparation so this is very helpful. Thanks!

  6. Les says:

    These are great suggestions. I have a short piece to deliver in a formal setting and cannot risk using just an outline or, worse yet, delivering it without any notes at all. I suddenly feel a whole lot better about doing this. Thanks.

  7. Indar raj singh says:

    Speech not receive properly

  8. MA says:

    Nice article, very informative. Do you have any advice on what type of paper to use for a speech, or what’s the best quality of paper?

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