I don't give many formal speeches, but when I do, I don't prepare a script to be read word for word. Instead, I think clearly beforehand about what I want to say and write down a few ideas with key words or an illustration that reminds me of my points as the short talk unfolds (and this card is not seen by the audience). It's possible to memorize a speech, but memorized speeches almost always sound artificial and somehow disconnected unless you are an extremely skilled speaker (and have loads of time for memorizing pages of text). Since memorization is so arduous and risky, many executives and politicians elect to read their speech in some fashion. Who can blame them?
It's not impossible to read a speech and make a powerful connection with an audience, but it's extremely difficult to do so (which is why groups like Toastmasters are so valuable). It takes a lot of work and coaching and experience, but it is possible to read a prepared speech that is remarkable. Unfortunately, such speeches are rare. Remember, it's not just the words of the speech — whether read or memorized — it is the meaning of the words. To convey meaning (the "so what?" not just the "what"), you're going to have to deliver the message as naturally as possible. I don't think you have to be super polished — and certainly you don't have to be perfect — but you do have to capture the audience's attention and take them someplace. You do have to speak in a human voice.
Senator John McCain with two teleprompters. The words are visible only to him.
And one more teleprompter in the middle.
The trick? Don't make it seem so obvious
The problem with reading from paper is that eye contact can suffer. To get around this many executives and politicians use teleprompters. While the teleprompter gets the head up, its use is no guarantee that the delivery will be any better. Sometimes, for example, it's very obvious that the speaker is reading and there is no real eye contact with the audience — there is just a gaze in the general direction of the audience as the speaker is clearly focused on the teleprompter in front (or to the left or the right). Reading a speech from a teleprompter that engages an audience is not easy. It's hard. But some political figures are batter at it than others. CNN last week did a short segment on some of the pitfalls of using a teleprompter, highlighting Senator John McCain's adventures with reading at the lectern as an example. Watch it below.
The right way
President Reagan was very effective at reading speeches. President Clinton was as well. Today, Senator Barack Obama clearly stands above the rest. The "Yes We Can" speech was read from a teleprompter and was powerful and memorable. While in Silicon Valley two weeks ago I saw Senator Obama give his "A More Perfect Union" speech on television. Though I knew he was using a teleprompter, his delivery made me soon forget he was reading a prepared speech. Though formal and serious, his words seemed more natural and flowed more smoothly. If you have the time, watch this speech in its entirety below.
In many ways, reading a speech is far more difficult than giving a presentation with the aid of multimedia. Reading may seem safe and easy compared to going without a net, but standing in front of an audience and bringing words off a screen and giving them life and energy in a way that connects with the audience and moves them and persuades them is truly an art. It's hard, but it's a skill that great leaders must master. (If you're in the States, experts like Bert Decker, Jerry Weissman, and Carmine Gallo can help take you and your company to another level).
• Free online teleprompter (of sorts)