For many years, I’ve quietly mentored a few speakers in the industry. As I slow down my own speaking career, I’ve decided to put some of that mentoring advice into Internet form. One of the most important things, although it seems like a good idea at first, is to never, never, EVER memorize your talk—and that includes having a script for it.
It feels counterintuitive; if you’re not a good extemporaneous speaker, wouldn’t it make sense to have what you want to say written down so that you don’t have to try and think and speak at the same time? You can focus on the speaking since the thinking is already captured there on the script and that way you can deliver a better talk.
The Fallacy of the Script
Frankly, I find this to be a speaking fallacy, one which is perpetuated by a variety of sources, particularly politicians. And honestly, given how badly the current Republican candidate is at spontaneously speaking to the audience, it would seem even more counterintuitive.
To begin with, let’s put one thing to bed, you simply do not have the time to memorize a talk. Nobody does. I’ve been speaking for twenty years (even longer if you count my high school stint through Toastmasters), and only twice in my life have I ever delivered a memorized speech. There is simply no way I could memorize and deliver all of the technical talks I’ve delivered over the years. Do I have a few well-traveled jokes that I like to carry from one talk to the next? Sure—that’s a different scenario.
A memorized speech makes more sense when it’s a one-off and it’s absolutely imperative that you deliver exactly the right words with the right nuance and the right emotion at the exact right moment. A funeral, a wedding, a commencement speech, these are places where a memorized speech is appropriate. A technical talk, not so much.
And if you notice the use of the two different words there—“speech” against “talk”—it’s apparent there’s a significant difference between giving a persuasive and/or emotional speech, and delivering a technical talk.
To start, the lengths are wildly different. When President Obama delivers a speech to the factory workers in Pennsylvania, he’s generally not talking for an hour—but when you do a technical presentation on OData for the local user group, generally that’s the length of time you should be aiming for. (Of course, each group has its own organization and it’s own wishes, but 50 - 75 minutes is the rough range for almost all the software development conferences I’ve seen.)
Secondly, Obama has a TelePrompter. You, sadly, do not. Yes, PowerPoint and Keynote will allow you to put your speaking notes right there on the screen in front of you, but the tendency then will be to put your eyes down onto the screen, and not out to the audience in front of you. And your eyes need to be on the audience in front of you—you need to read their body language to see if they’re getting it, or if they’re all confused, or if somebody has a question, even. Keep your eyes on the audience, not your notes.
But lastly, Obama has speechwriters who understand how to craft the spoken work in such a way that it sounds compelling, uplifting and meaningful. All you have is you.
What’s more, the spoken word and the written word sound very, very differently from one another. To see what I mean, go pick up the last technical book you’ve read, and flip to the the middle of a chapter. Now read the first three paragraphs out loud. Seriously. Go do this. I’ll wait.
That was awful, no? Our eyes and our ears process information very differently from one another. The eyes can pick up on patterns quickly, and slide over unessential words particularly quickly, which makes tricks like putting the word “the” twice in a row in the middle of a written sentence (like I did in the previous paragraph, which only some of you noticed) not a big deal. The spoken word, however, doesn’t sound at all like the written word, which is why transcripts of people speaking off-the-cuff (and I’m thinking particularly of politicians here, since they’re the easiest examples of when they’re reading prepared speeches and when they’re not, and it’s ridiculously easy to tell which is which) sound so, well, horrible. Go read the full transcript of an interview from any talk show; whether the interview is with an athelete or a politician, while the spoken interview feels natural and smooth, reading the written transcript often feels anything but.
Spoken language is often far less formal than written language, and until you get to a point where you can write something meant to be read out loud, and speak something that could pass for the written word without feeling stilted and awkward, don’t bother writing out or memorizing your speech. Have an outline for the talk, to be sure (we’ll talk more about that later), but don’t come anywhere close to memorizing it word-for-word.