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Read my lips: Don’t read your presentations


We all have our comfort levels, especially when it comes to preparing to give a presentation or speech.  Experienced presenters know what works for them, and usually find themselves evolving in their need to prepare, as well as the ways and means of doing so.

All of us, however, were new to this at some point in the process. And unless you are one of the rare few who were born to be on the stage, and I doubt they exist, the majority of people find the notion of facing an audience right up there with telling the CEO that you saw his wife canoodling with her tennis pro. 

For some, few things in life are more terrifying than an appointment with a podium and a room full of blank stares. So what do we do to overcome this fear? How do we make it through the night before the Big Day? We write it all down, word for word, and then when we hit the stage, and we read it aloud.

Wrong answer!

Without exception, reading a presentation to an audience is the death of your effectiveness as a speaker. This is just as true for PowerPoint slides as speeches. The audience didn’t sign up to hear you read to them. Word is, they actually find it grossly insulting, which means that if they get a presenter with eyes glued to a transcript they not only reject the message, no matter how beneficial to them it may be, they resent the hell out of it, and you.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Engaging in safety behaviors like holding on to a script as if it’s the last swim-vest onboard a sinking ship dooms you to a virtual drowning before the eyes of your not very sympathetic audience. Instead, try trusting yourself.

I recently gave a workshop on executive storytelling, the art and science of using story to influence your audience. One participant presented her story, using carefully crafted notes, which she read aloud to a group of initially supportive fellow attendees, many of which visibly grew more and more restless as she went on with no eye-contact or vocal variety.

She was about as energised as an accountant reading a spreadsheet, obviously terrified, and the story never stood a chance of gaining any impact whatsoever. So, without a word, I stood up and approached her at the front of the room, held out my hand for the notes and she handed over the papers. I then asked her to start over; which she did, in a way that amazed the group, who suddenly were spellbound by a story told by a woman who was infusing her narrative with passion and an appropriate smattering of wit and compulsive energy. Instead of drowning, the speaker started swimming.

What’s the lesson?

Writing out a presentation is a great way to craft something effective, something of meaty substance with relevant detail and compelling language that reaches hearts and minds of listeners. But reading it to your audience is a sure-fire way to strip it of everything good. 

Even if the content is brilliant, reading it condemns it to failure. Rather than read it aloud, or worse, trying to fake it while looking down more than you’re looking at your listeners, use the word-for-word transcript as a preparation tool only. Then use bullets and key words on your notes instead, or better, memorize the essence and allow your inner monologue to emerge. 

The audience reward you with rapt attention and feverish anticipation, stumbles and all, because a story told from the heart, warts and all, is always more powerful than one read from the page.

Harrison Monarth is a New York Times bestselling author and executive speaking coach. He is also President of GuruMaker - School of Professional Speaking, a communications consulting firm

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