How to Bring the Written Word to Life

By Heather Baldwin

You no doubt know that reading your presentation verbatim is a no-no. Whether you’re reading from your slides or reading from a piece of paper, the result usually is a drawn-out, ho-hum affair that leaves audience members looking at their watches, flipping through that report they’ve been meaning to read and counting the minutes until you’re done. That’s because people who read their presentations generally are saying words rather than communicating thoughts, thus leaving the audience to decode and interpret the speech – and many won’t make that effort, says Mike Landrum, a professional speaker, actor and presentation skills coach based in Bloomington Grove, NY (www.coachmike.com).

Still, there might be times when you have no choice but to read a speech, so knowing how to do so effectively is “one of the necessary skills any presenter must master,” says Landrum. Here are his tips for doing well in these situations.

1. Connect with your audience – not the page. When reading a speech, many presenters feel their main job is to say all the words on the page in the right order. Thus they spend most of their time with their head down making sure they’re getting it right. They’re not. Your job as a presenter is to communicate the ideas on the page. You can do that only if you’re looking up and connecting with the audience. “The objective of public speaking is to deliver the meaning of your ideas to a group of human minds,” says Landrum. “It’s ironic that a fixation on the words should be among the greatest obstacles to communication.”

2. Memorize key sections. So how can you connect with audience members without losing your place and your rhythm? First, memorize the opening and closing, says Landrum, so you can speak them directly into your audience’s eyes with confidence. Never read these two crucial parts of a speech from paper. Second, learn to read with your mind faster than you speak. As you’re uttering the first few words of a sentence, scan the rest of it, then look up at your audience while you finish the sentence aloud. This skill takes some practice but is key to building rapport with your audience.

3. Format and score the page. Print your pages in at least 14-point font so they’re easy to read. Then get out your highlighters. “Many speakers find it useful to mark their text with colored pens, underlining certain words or thoughts they want to emphasize, numbering lists and ideas and so on. Some even mark pauses and places to breathe,” says Landrum. “Do anything that will remind you to use your full range of vocal variety.”

4. Interpret the speech. To achieve vocal variety you’ll need to work extra hard to ensure you’re constantly varying your rate and pitch and emphasizing words and ideas if you’re reading from a page. On the page the words are evenly spaced and given equal emphasis by the printer, says Landrum. When you speak you must ensure you’re varying your inflection and vocal color.

5. Practice to make the connection. Many presenters think that if they read a speech they won’t have to practice because all the words will be in front of them. Not true – for all the reasons discussed. “Many pros recommend at least 10 minutes of practice to every 1 minute of finished presentation. Some recommend 20 to 1,” says Landrum. “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. Your practice sessions must be spoken aloud, he adds, otherwise you are just dreaming about practice.”

On a final note, Landrum points out that we deliver a speech while we give a presentation. “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,” he concludes. “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 might fill their ears with the correct words but you have not delivered the speech.”