Public Speaking: Reading a Script vs. Internalizing a Message

What are the pros and cons of reading a script to an audience, and what are the pros and cons of internalizing a message so that you don’t have to refer to a script?

Positives about Reading a Script

  1. Your ideas are laid out clearly–in black and white–so that you can deliver your complete message with carefully crafted words.  This is highly important in situations such as The State of the Union Address, when what you say will be part of the historical record, or when there is a great need to be precise, such as thanking a long list of dignitaries in the audience.
  2. Reading a script makes you feel more secure because you know you won’t go blank.  You can always look down at your text and carry on.
  3. Reading a script minimizes your rehearsal time.  The real work is done when the script is finished.  Yes, you do have to practice reading it aloud, but if you are familiar with the contents of the pages, your rehearsal may be relatively quick and easy.
  4. Reading a script makes you appear to be prepared, intelligent, and maybe even academic.  After all, at many academic conferences, scholars are invited to read papers.  I am told such conferences are rarely riveting entertainment.

Negatives  about reading a script

  1. You’re reading written prose, so you will sound formal and more distant.  We don’t speak in complete sentences, and the rhythm of formal prose is very different from the cadences of spontaneous speech.  Actors train for years to be able to make written scripts sound “real” or conversational.  Few people outside of the theater have this ability.  Reagan had it, but he was an actor.
  2. Your ability to maintain eye contact with your listeners is limited.  This means it’s harder for you to convey a sense of conviction and belief.  As a result, you may try to manipulate your voice to indicate conviction, which may add to your problems of inauthenticity.
  3. When you read a script, it is also difficult for you to read your audience.  After all, your eyes are on the page to ensure that you don’t flub your lines.  Therefore, if you lose your audience, or offend them in some way, it’s harder for you to make adjustments.  Making adjustments is the meat of being in dialogue with an audience.
  4. With a script, the audience does not get to see you thinking on your feet, performing under pressure, and demonstrating your best qualities of leadership.
  5. When you read a script, you will probably stand behind a lectern.  You are well-protected from the audience by the lectern itself, and by the wall of words that you plan to recite to them.
  6. You therefore have difficulty creating a sense of intimacy with your audience, and audiences crave intimacy with speakers.  They want to know who you really are.  They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Positives of Internalizing a Message

  1. Without a script, you are free to wander away from the lectern, move into the crowd, engage in dialogue with members of the audience, or perch on a chair or a table and be entirely informal.
  2. You look more accessible as a person.  Your listeners are more attentive because you are actually speaking from the heart (or from memory.)  Or they are attentive because they expect the unexpected: they are not sure what you’re going to say next.  To them, you may appear to be improvising.
  3. You can maintain eye contact constantly.  You can watch the faces of your listeners and respond to what you see.  You are not constrained by a text, and therefore your speech or presentation approximates dialogue.  Your presentation is more like an interactive lecture than a formal address, and we know from research that an interactive audience is more easily persuaded than an audience that is not asked to participate.
  4. The audience sees you thinking on your feet, and therefore you display qualities of character that require courage and confidence.
  5. Internalizing a message means that, while the words will change slightly every time you deliver the message, the core content will not.  In fact, you will find new and better ways to say what you mean if you give the talk multiple times.
  6. The danger of going blank, or losing your train of thought, gives you an electrical charge that is gripping for the audience.  Your energy level is high high, which ignites the curiosity and attention of your listeners.

Negatives of Internalizing a Message

  1. It is hard work–it takes time to rehearse aloud early and often so that your talk is planted in the gray fiber of your memory.
  2. You run the risk of going blank, losing your place, and suffering the embarrassment of total melt down.  Nevertheless, if you rehearse enough, this will not happen to you.

Written scripts that are read can be electrifying, and presentations that are internalized can be deadly.  Preparation, sensitivity to the audience, and delivery will carry the day in almost all cases.

In business, in my experience, written scripts are a liability.  We expect our experts to be able to talk about their area of expertise without the aid of a text.

And business leaders, although they may not be experts in all aspects of the business, need to convey their leadership expertise by creating a bond with their listeners by getting away from a text, and into the ears and eyes –hearts and minds–of those they lead and seek to influence.

Sims Wyeth & Co. provides public speaking coursesexecutive speech coachingpresentation skills trainingvoice and speech trainingspeech writing, and courses that address stage fright, body language, presentation strategy, and effective use of PowerPoint, all of which contribute to greater executive presence and personal impact.

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