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Reading the Speech - Ten Suggestions - by Mike Landrum

Including Tips for Reading from Teleprompter

                                    "Meaning is an intention of the mind."  -  Edmund Husserl

Why do speakers read? Well, for busy executives, there may not be enough time to really work on the speech, to practice until they've got it memorized. Reading is the only way to be sure they get the words right. So they step to the podium with pages in hand.

Now, imagine you are sitting in the audience. The speaker steps to the lectern with pages - you can't avoid making an estimate - is it fifteen pages? More like twenty. You groan inside. After a few off-the-cuff opening remarks, he drops his head and begins to read. It's not fun to sit in an audience and have a speaker read to you, is it? It makes you feel avoided and held away from the present moment. You're here now and the speaker is giving you thoughts from when? Perhaps last night, or last week or last year. You sit there wondering who wrote this speech and how much of it the speaker actually believes. After all, if he can't remember his own speech, why should you? 

We in the audience long for contact, eye contact . . . it's an essential sign of trustworthiness. Can you imagine buying a car or an insurance policy from someone who won’t meet your eyes? We need to trust the speaker for the same reason. Just look at us and tell us what you think about the subject. It's okay to refer to your notes now and then, keeping your thoughts in order, reminding yourself of points that need to be made, etc. There is a correct way to read by simply referring to the page as a memory aid to move through well understood thoughts and ideas.

Reading aloud is a very different mental process than speaking spontaneously. In speaking, the important things to communicate are the thoughts and ideas. For speakers the unit of communication is the idea, not the word. It's possible to read the words without thinking the thoughts, and indeed this is often what happens. The audience is then forced to decode your speech for you, to take the word-clues and, by a process of re-interpretation, try to arrive at your ideas. Many listeners will not make the effort.

There are times, of course, when reading a speech is unavoidable. In long speeches by heads of state, reading is a requirement for legal and policy reasons. We would get nervous if the President of the United States delivered a major policy speech off the cuff. Many people in leadership roles in business, academia and science are in similar positions and must deliver a thoroughly prepared and vetted text. So, knowing how to read from a written text is one of the necessary skills any presenter must master. Even so, Presidents and world leaders should, and often do, find an opportunity to get away from the text - I urge my clients never to read an entire speech, (at least open and close a presentation without reading - making good, solid, eye contact).

For those times when reading is a simple necessity, here are five tips to help you read better from the lectern and five more on the use of Teleprompters.

1) Your connection to the audience is more important than your connection to the page. Many speakers fail to grasp the importance of this vital rule. They feel their chief obligation is to pronounce the precise words on the page. The audience ends up staring at the top of the speaker's head while mentally re-interpreting the speech for themselves. The objective of public speaking is to deliver the meaning of your ideas to a group of human minds. It's ironic that a fixation on the words should be among the greatest obstacles to communication.

2) Read with your mind faster than you speak with your mouth. When reading to an audience, the task is to make the words on the page come alive, expressive and spontaneous, with conviction and commitment. Avoid the deadly habit of speaking only the word you are looking at, the way a beginner reads in school. Your eyes should be able to scan the entire sentence while your voice is uttering the first few words of it. That will allow you to look up at your audience while you finish the sentence. This takes a little practice, but once you master the trick of it, you ll find it possible to maintain better rapport with your audience. Obviously, this technique requires considerable practice with the text.

3) Interpret the speech. On the page the words are evenly spaced and given equal stress by the printer. Of course, when we speak in daily conversation we are constantly varying our rate, pitch and emphasis. To sound natural and to be well understood, break up the monotonous march of words by varying your inflection, emphasis, rate and vocal color. Jazz singers call this phrasing and such masters as Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, were terrific models of this subtle art. We can learn a lot by listening to great singers interpret the standard songs - taking familiar lyrics and making them their own - fresh, personal and unique.

4) Format and score the page. When you must read from a page make sure the text is printed in a big, easy-to-read font, at least 14 point, double spaced. If it is a long piece, let each sentence begin a fresh line. Many speakers find it useful to mark their text with colored pens, underlining certain words or thoughts to stress, numbering lists and ideas, etc. Some even mark pauses and places to breathe. You might want to play with it on your computer, putting some words in bold type and others in italic. You can even use color and wild enlargements of some words to add emphasis . . . anything that will remind you to use your full range of vocal variety. Voice actors use this practice regularly with their radio and voice-over scripts. They call it "scoring" the way an orchestra leader works from a musical score.

5) Be sure to practice. If you think reading the speech gets you out of practice, you are deluding yourself and headed for a mediocre performance. What's a good practice/performance ratio? Many pros recommend at least 10 to 1 ten minutes of practice to every one minute of finished presentation. Some take 20 to 1. Don t forget that you are not to read the opening and closing - they are to be spoken directly into your audience's eyes, so practice them until you are rock solid. These practice sessions must be spoken aloud – otherwise it's just dreaming about practice.

6) Reading from Teleprompters takes more practice. Too many speakers try to read "cold" from a teleprompter. It’s very different than reading from a page. Practice is essential to make adjustments to the text, get used to the operator in control of the scroll, and get some coaching. Even good readers can look very bad with teleprompters if they are seeing the text there for the first time.

7) You must impose your rhythm on the speech not the other way around. The great danger of teleprompters is the relentless roll of the words. The most important element in rhythm is the pause. Remember, the prompter operator will follow your lead. If you stop, the prompter will stop. Treat the scrolling text as your memory and read for the sense of the idea. So pause, catch the next idea and express that idea in a conversational rhythm. If you have practiced as you should, you will even be able to begin or end your sentences away from the prompter and pick up again on the fly. Pausing is a sign of confidence in a speaker.

8) Perform with energy. To avoid the typical wooden monotone so often found in speeches from teleprompter, the speaker must speak through the screen to the audience beyond. It's vital for you to endow the glass on which the words are reflected with a personality and express yourself with extra energy to that personality. As with speaking into a camera, treat the lens as a window through which you are conversing with an interested friend.

9) Rehearse on video. One of the most valuable tools in my coaching kit is my camcorder. Speakers are performers and therefore are stuck inside their work. It is essential to videotape your rehearsals to get an objective view of how you’re doing and discover your true level of communication. Are you talking to someone, or simply droning on? Is your face animated? Play it back with the sound off and see. Is your voice expressive enough? Cover the screen and just listen to the playback. Do you need to add gestures or emphasize a point? Put notes into your prompter script in a different color to alert you at the proper moment.

10) Different ways to use TelePrompTer. It s not always a good idea to have an entire speech written out on the prompter. Suppose you have a favorite story, or you want to insert an ad lib conversation with someone? You can break away from the prompter and return when you're finished. Some people just put an outline of their talk on the prompter to help them stay on track.

Bonus Tip: Make the writing terse. Keep the sentences short and simple. The idea to be expressed must be quickly grasped by the reader. Compound sentences and convoluted syntax are fatal traps for the unwary speaker. Repetitions are positive qualities in a speech. Restate your points in different ways. These are good ideas for any speech, but especially for one on teleprompter.

One last word on teleprompters: many of my clients think they will make giving a speech easier. All I have to do is show up and read? No problem! In fact, they find that the teleprompter makes the speaker's job deceptively difficult; underestimating that difficulty has led to many disasters. Speaking is more than just parroting words, isn’t it? In order to really communicate, you need to build a relationship with the audience. Getting past a distracting piece of glass with words scrolling up it is not as easy as it may seem. It takes practice to summon the energy and focus needed to get your message out from under glass and into the audience's minds. Ronald Reagan, a speaker with some experience, used to devote an entire day to rehearsing his State of the Union speeches with the teleprompter.

We deliver a speech. We give a sermon, a presentation, a talk. Those verbs are essential to the process of satisfactory communication. Conscientious speakers will take responsibility for the reception of their speeches as well as the transmission of them. If what you're saying is important to you, if you really want the audience to act on what you say, then give your speech generously. Achieving rapport is a full body sport. You need to put your whole self into the task - mind, body, heart and spirit - not just your mouth. When you merely read to an audience, you may fill their ears with the correct words, but you have not delivered the speech.