Four Better Ways To Speak From a Script (If You Must)

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on November 10, 2014 – 4:01 am

Many speakers like to type out their entire speeches.

It’s easy to imagine these presenters hunched over their laptops for days, a steady stream of caffeine serving as their only companions. Despite their sleep deprivation, their hard work ultimately results in carefully-edited, near-perfect speeches.

At least their scripts look perfect. But when the speakers read their words aloud for the first time during their presentations, they sound stiffer than a newly hired phone solicitor reading the script his boss just thrust into his hands. As a result, audience members can tell that the speaker is reading and might conclude that it would have been more efficient if the speaker had just distributed the text and let them read it for themselves.  

These speakers are often dreadful to watch because they fail to remember that writing for the eye is different than writing for the ear.

Still, writing out a full speech does have certain advantages. For example, writing out a speech can help speakers create a tightly-focused organizational structure and discover a few ideas, themes, or cleverly-worded phrases that they otherwise wouldn’t have stumbled upon.

Therefore, I’m not against writing out your entire script, since doing so might help yield valuable fruit. I’m only against delivering speeches from prepared scripts (unless you’re the head of state or a similarly important figure, for whom a single bad word choice could provoke an international incident or cause markets to plummet). 

If you must deliver a speech from a prepared text, here are four tips to consider:

1. Write Short Sentences

Long sentences may look good on paper, but they typically don’t sound natural when spoken aloud. Shorten them or separate longer lines into two or three sentences.

2. Use “Non-Reading” Delivery

When people read a speech, they tend to lose the vocal dynamics and non-verbal delivery elements they use during less formal presentations. So remember to change your pace, add a few pauses, speak more quickly in certain moments to add a dose of excitement and more slowly in others to allow the audience time to contemplate a key idea.

3. Maintain Eye Contact

Challenge yourself to maintain eye contact with the audience for at least 80 percent of your talk (you should eventually aim for closer to 100 percent, but reaching 80 percent is a laudable achievement for most speakers working off a script). Help yourself by writing short sentences and short words; doing so will allow you to look down, see the next line, look back up, and deliver the line directly to a person in your audience, an approach public speaking author James C. Humes refers to as the “See-Stop-Say” Technique. 

4. Use This Better Alternative

I usually encourage clients who are delivering a speech from a script to leave a few holes in their texts. For example, speakers should be able to open their speeches for a minute or two without a formal text. If they’re welcoming people to an annual conference, they should be able to say, “Welcome, we’re so glad you’re here!” without any notes in front of them. Same goes for your close. In the middle of your speech, you might insert a hole for a personal anecdote, which will come across with greater authenticity if you share it “off the page.” Just practice your transition back into your prepared remarks once you’ve completed the anecdote.

 

Save bedtime stories for children. Don’t read to your audiences.

 

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Turn Off Your Cell Phones, People!

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on November 6, 2014 – 5:22 am

During MSNBC’s election coverage on Tuesday night, Tom Brokaw’s cell phone alarm started blaring while he was on the air. A seasoned pro, Brokaw played it off nicely, pretending he had received a call from his wife, who had requested that he bring home some milk.

 

Rudy Giuliani had a similar moment in 2007 during his ill-fated presidential run when he received a call from his wife during a speech to the National Rifle Association. He picked up the phone while speaking before hundreds of people, had a brief conversation with her, and continued his speech.

 

Giuliani’s stunt earned widespread ridicule from the press; even conservative columnist Kathleen Parker wrote that picking up the call was “emasculating”:

“While jaws began setting in a room of muted chuckles, Rudy played public cuckold to his third wife. Feigning amusement and affection while exchanging sweet nothings, the aspiring president utterly emasculated himself in front of a crowd whose cumulative testosterone level had the Army Corps of Engineers on alert.”

Both of those moments reminded me of a speech I saw television anchor John Stossel deliver several years ago. His phone started ringing while he was speaking to a packed ballroom; he fumbled for his phone, turned it off, and apologized to the audience for the interruption. That moment was highly distracting—it removed me from his speech and turned my attention to his phone—and highly memorable, as it’s the moment I remember best from his speech.

My advice in this post is simple—turn off your phones before a media interview or speech—but there’s one less intuitive piece of advice I’d offer. It’s not enough to put your phones on vibrate. While the audience may not hear your device ring when it’s on silent mode, you will—and the vibration itself is often enough to distract you from your comments.

 

Please turn off cell phones screen in old retro cinema

 

Writing in The New York Times, author Martin Lindstrom explains:

“So are our smartphones addictive, medically speaking? Some psychologists suggest that using our iPhones and BlackBerrys may tap into the same associative learning pathways in the brain that make other compulsive behaviors — like gambling — so addictive. As with addiction to drugs or cigarettes or food, the chemical driver of this process is the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine.

Earlier this year, I carried out an fMRI experiment to find out whether iPhones were really, truly addictive, no less so than alcohol, cocaine, shopping or video games. In conjunction with the San Diego-based firm MindSign Neuromarketing, I enlisted eight men and eight women between the ages of 18 and 25. Our 16 subjects were exposed separately to audio and to video of a ringing and vibrating iPhone.

In each instance, the results showed activation in both the audio and visual cortices of the subjects’ brains. In other words, when they were exposed to the video, our subjects’ brains didn’t just see the vibrating iPhone, they ‘heard’ it, too; and when they were exposed to the audio, they also ‘saw’ it.”

Some studies show that the momentary buzz in your pocket removes you from your central task, if even for a brief moment. And when that buzz occurs, I wouldn’t be surprised to observe speakers suddenly increasing their amount of verbal filler and hesitations; since their brains are momentarily otherwise occupied, it would make sense to see their speech briefly interrupted.

Turn off your cell phones, people.

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Two Speech Gimmicks That Worked (And One That Didn’t)

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on November 3, 2014 – 5:02 am

Wikipedia defines a gimmick as “a trick or device intended to attract attention, publicity, or business.” For the purposes of this post, I’ll define gimmick slightly differently—as an unusually theatrical device intended to make a speaker’s point much more memorable.  

Because gimmicks are so attention grabbing, they fall under the category of “high risk, high reward.” When they work, they’re brilliant and become the one moment the audience remembers more than any other. But the opposite is also true: When they fail, they become the one moment the audience remembers more than any other.

Magician

 

As an example of a gimmick that worked, I once consulted with a scientist who was about to deliver a major talk about The Dark Ages. He described that period in great detail, explaining that the darkness was absolute, beyond any darkness that humans living today have ever experienced.

It occurred to me that killing the room lights could help the audience visualize that period even better, transporting them into the period of darkness better than his words alone ever could. We timed the moment to match his narration—and when the right moment struck, we killed the lights. For two minutes, he explained The Dark Ages to an audience that couldn’t see their own hands. 

That moment worked well because the “gimmick” was tied directly to his message. It seized the audience’s attention at the exact moment that he had a strong takeaway message to deliver. Most importantly, it felt purposeful and sincere, not gratuitous and manipulative.

 

Another Gimmick That Worked Well

The excellent book Made to Stick tells the story of Geoff Ainscow, an advocate who lobbied for arms control. The problem he encountered during his talks was that his audiences weren’t moved by his presentation. He found himself unable to convey the scale of the problem through statistics alone.

He changed tactics. To make his point, he dropped a BB into an empty bucket and compared it to Hiroshima. What came next had a huge impact. The authors write:

“Next, he’d drop ten BBs into the bucket. The clatter was louder and more chaotic. ‘This is the firepower of the missiles on one U.S. or Soviet nuclear submarine,’ he’d say.

Finally, he asked the attendees to close their eyes. He’d say, ‘This is the world’s current arsenal of nuclear weapons.’ Then he poured 5,000 BBs into the bucket (one for every nuclear warhead in the world). The noise was startling, even terrifying. ‘The roar of the BBs went on and on,’ said Ainscow. ‘Afterward there was always dead silence.”

 

Made to Stick Book Cover

 

An Awful Gimmick

An example of a gimmick that didn’t work comes from Jeremey Donovan’s book How To Deliver a TED Talk. Discussing a speaker he had recently seen, he writes:

“To kick off his presentation, he asks his audience to stand up, put their hand on their heart, turn around, and take one step forward. He then goes on to say that he can now report to his own boss when asked how the presentation went, that he ‘got them on their feet, touched their hearts, turned them around, and got them moving in the right direction.’”

Ugh! Donovan describes the change in that audience’s body language, which clearly reflected their resentment at having been manipulated purposelessly.

My general advice regarding gimmicks is this: They should be meaningful, tied directly to the message, and delivered by a sincere speaker who truly believes in the tactic. If you follow that guidance, don’t be afraid to use an occasional gimmick.

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Five Ways To Be A Great Audience Member

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 8, 2014 – 9:20 pm

In my work with public speakers, I’ve learned how important it is for me to serve as a receptive audience for them.

Although I usually try to maintain an enthusiastic expression when I watch speakers deliver a practice speech, my less-than-enthusiastic thoughts and feelings occasionally become clear to the presenter—even when I’m trying to mask them.

“You looked like you were getting bored,” the speaker might say. “I’m sorry you saw that,” I’ll reply, “I’m usually better about maintaining a poker face. But you’re right that the presentation started to drag a bit in the middle, so let’s talk about ways to keep the energy up during that section.”

Looking out into a sea of blank expressions, empty stares, or skeptical faces can be devastating for a speaker, particularly one who lacks confidence or experience.

Audience Listening To Presentation At Conference

There’s an argument to be made that it’s incumbent upon speakers to grab and maintain the attention of their audiences. That may be true—but audience members who sympathize with the plight of a speaker who’s struggling can improve the experience for the speaker and the rest of the audience. (Plus, it’s just the decent thing to do.)

Many speakers tell me that the first few minutes of a presentation are the most critical for them to feel like they’re succeeding—so having a few friendly faces looking back at them can be all the encouragement they need to hit their stride and deliver a winning presentation.

Here are five ways to be a supportive audience member:

1. Listen. Even if the speaker is delivering his or her content badly, there may be an underlying message worth hearing.

2. Exhibit supportive body language. That means maintaining eye contact, smiling when appropriate, and nodding to indicate understanding.

3. Ask questions. If the speaker asks for participation and no one else is jumping in, try to help them by asking a question. This can be particularly useful for a speaker who is failing to deliver their content in a compelling manner—the right question can draw out a more interesting response (e.g. “You mentioned earlier that the new trucking route would save customers money and time. Can you provide me with an example so I can better picture how that would work?”). 

4. Put away your smartphone. Seeing audience members who are clearly checked out is distracting at the least and often downright demoralizing.

5. Offer gentle feedback after the presentation. You can help the speaker improve by offering encouraging feedback, such as: “It really resonated with me when you shared the story about the customer who canceled our service. If you present on this topic again, you might want to spend even more time on that story, because you had my attention during that whole section of your talk.”

What would you add to this list? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

 


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Another Good Way To Break The Pattern

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on September 25, 2014 – 6:02 am

Earlier this week, I wrote about the importance of “breaking the pattern” when delivering a presentation.

That post discussed what you can do as a speaker to change your delivery approach frequently in order to maintain and regain your audience’s attention. But that article focused solely on the contrast you can provide during your own presentation—and there’s another key way to break the pattern that occurs when you’re speaking at a conference or multi-speaker workshop.

Before planning your own presentation at a conference, get a feel for the “default” speaking style most speakers plan to use. Hold a conference call with other speakers. Start an email chain. Talk to the conference planner.

Then, look for ways to break the default pattern.

Break The Pattern PPT iStockPhoto

Here are a few examples of providing a contrast between yourself and other speakers:

  1. If other speakers plan on using PowerPoint, consider going without it (or at least keep the screen dark for the first several minutes).
  2. If other speakers put complex technical information on the screen, consider handing out a well-designed one-page handout instead. Give the audience a few minutes to take in the content (they won’t be able to hear you until they’ve digested your content anyway), and then add context to the handout they just read.
  3. If other speakers will deliver their presentations from behind a lectern, request a lavaliere microphone and speak in front of the stage.
  4. If other speakers are dressed in business attire but your professional or personal brand is more business casual, dress in a manner consistent with your own brand (assuming, of course, that doing so would be appropriate to the occasion).
  5. If other speakers plan on taking audience questions only after they finish their prepared remarks, consider allowing questions and interacting with the audience throughout your presentation.

Doing something that breaks convention takes some boldness and courage. But the payoff for speakers who choose smart ways to stand out from their “competition”—and the battle to earn the audience’s long-term memory is competition—can be huge.

What are your favorite “pattern breakers?” Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

 


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The Importance Of Breaking The Pattern

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on September 23, 2014 – 5:02 am

Humans evolved with a keen ability to detect motion and change in the environment. That was a particularly helpful trait for our ancestors, who were (hopefully) able to use their peripheral vision to detect large animals preparing to attack.

Although most of us are no longer fending off animal attacks, the evolutionary gift we inherited from our ancestors remains with us. We’re good at detecting change.

We’re not as good, however, with sameness. We acclimate quickly. Therefore, in order to maintain or regain an audience’s attention, speakers must frequently “break the pattern.” As Dr. Susan Weinschenk advises in 100 Things Every Presenter Needs to Know About People, “Because people habituate to stimuli, it helps to keep things at least a little unpredictable.”

Break The Pattern PPT iStockPhoto

You can break the pattern in many different ways:

  • After sharing a few facts, tell a story
  • If you’ve been using PowerPoint, turn it off and move toward your audience
  • If you’ve been standing to the right of your audience, move to its left
  • If you’ve been speaking in a quiet tone, add volume to emphasize a key point
  • If you’ve been lecturing, pause and ask for a volunteer
  • Ask the audience a question, real or rhetorical
  • If you’ve been speaking, show a video or distribute a handout

Breaking the pattern should never feel gratuitous to the audience—and it won’t, if your pattern-changers occur at logical points during your talk, such as in between key points.

An unofficial trick of the trade is to mindful of “The Ten-Minute Rule,” which maintains that you should break your pattern at least once every ten minutes, the amount of time at which many audience members begin to lose their focus. Although ten minutes isn’t a fixed number (some people’s attention will begin to drift after four seconds, others after forty minutes), the rule serves as a useful reminder to break the pattern often.

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Why You Should Prepare A “Just In Case” Closing

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on September 10, 2014 – 4:22 am

A couple of our clients recently faced a similar situation. They were both pitching an idea to an important audience (a board of directors and an influential community group) and didn’t know how the audience would react to their recommendations.

In an ideal world, they would have been able to get a sense of their audience’s sentiments prior to speaking, but that wasn’t a reliable option in these cases.

As they practiced their talks, it became clear to us that they’d need to create two versions of their closings—one if their audiences supported their pitch, and another if their audiences were more skeptical.

That “just in case” closing was an important tool for both speakers to have at the ready, and it prevented both speakers from being caught off guard or closing with a discordant ending.

orator in public

As an example, here’s the “supportive” closing, which would be delivered after the Q&A period:

“For all of the reasons we’ve discussed today, I am confident that this proposal is the best option to help us achieve our core goals. Not only will this vendor’s software keep better track of our donors, but the software’s sophistication has led to increased fundraising—in some cases, dramatically so—for similar not-for-profit groups. As a next step, I will schedule a meeting with the vendor to get some hard numbers, after which I will report back to you with my recommended approach.”

Here’s an example of the “just in case” closing:

“After surveying the options available to our organization, I remain confident that this vendor is the best choice to help us accomplish our core goals. But your questions make clear that we need more information before making any commitments. As a next step, I will schedule a meeting with the vendor to get some of those answers, after which I will report back to you with their responses and my recommended next steps.”

Those two closings aren’t dramatically different—but if you delivered the first one to a group that challenged your recommendation, you would risk looking tone-deaf. Therefore, consider creating a “just in case” closing if you believe there’s a chance that your audience may not be ready to fully embrace your idea.

Want to learn more about public speaking? Check out our recommended reading list!


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Should You Really Use A Restroom Before A Speech?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on August 24, 2014 – 9:36 pm

Most speakers I know use the restroom before delivering a presentation. Doing so seems rather obvious—why would anyone want to be uncomfortable during a speech?

British Prime Minister David Cameron reportedly disagrees. Before big speeches, Mr. Cameron occasionally avoids the restroom. He claims that the discomfort of a full bladder gives him energy and keeps him focused.

David_Cameron_(28_January_2011)

According to The Guardian:

“Cameron, it is said, used his tried-and-tested “full-bladder technique” to achieve maximum focus and clarity of thought throughout the grueling nine-hour session in Brussels. During the formal dinner and subsequent horse-trading into the early hours, the prime minister remained intentionally ‘desperate for a pee’.

Cameron has reportedly used the technique before, notably during his ‘no notes’ conference speeches during the early years of his party leadership. He heard about it when watching a Michael Cockerell documentary about the late Conservative politician Enoch Powell a decade beforehand. Powell – best known for his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968 – remarked that he always performed an important speech on a full bladder: ‘You should do nothing to decrease the tension before making a big speech. If anything, you should seek to increase it.’

Perhaps the technique works for Cameron. But The Guardian points to a study that found that an “extreme urge to void [urinate] is associated with impaired cognition.”

I’m not sure I’ll be adding this technique to my suggested tips for speakers any time soon—but I don’t begrudge Cameron using this tactic if it works for him. In part, that’s because I have an odd—and admittedly outdated and cheesy—ritual of my own. As I’m being introduced before a big presentation, I play the theme song to Rocky in my mind. It pumps me up and allows me to walk to the stage with energy and purpose. 

That leads to a question: Have you ever used an odd method of pumping yourself up for a talk? What works for you? Leave your response in the comments section below.

Photo credit: World Economic Forum / Moritz Hager

 

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

    Brad Phillips

    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

    Christina Mozaffari is the Senior Writer for the Mr. Media Training Blog. She is the Washington, D.C. vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

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    Before joining Phillips Media Relations in 2011, Christina worked as a journalist with NBC News, where she produced stories for MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC Nightly News, and The Today Show.

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