November 9, 2010

Speaking from a script doesn't have to sound scripted

Photo by Paula Bailey

I generally don't recommend using a script or memorizing a presentation, but there are times when you don't have a choice, like when you're handed a script to read that was written by someone else. Or you may choose to use a script when your audience can't see you; for example, when you're giving a webinar.

So for those of you who occasionally use a script, here are some tips for making your presentation sound fresh, not canned.

1. Write like you speak, don't speak like you write.

Writing and speaking are two different languages. Writing is formal, structured, permanent, with longer sentences and paragraphs, and ideas organized through grammar and punctuation to get our meaning across. The reader makes meaning of the words by adding her or his own mental "voice" and imagination to the text on the page. Writing is meant to be read.

Speech is living, changing and happening in the moment, with ideas starting, stopping, shifting and adapting in the space of the conversation or presentation. We employ nonverbal communication to emphasize words, act out scenes, paint pictures and express the emotion behind our ideas. Speech is meant to be heard and seen.

If you speak like you write, you will most likely come across as though you are reading from a tome, and not in a good way. If you write it this way (the way you were taught in high dangling modifiers, split infinitives or sentences beginning with "but" or "and"), and if you are not an actor or professional speaker, you will have to put a lot of time into making your script sound natural. Your script is not meant as a document, but as a living, breathing conversation. Write it that way.

2. Slow down

When reading from a script, the faster you go, the more robotic you sound. Slow down and pay attention to the punctuation, the pauses, the periods, the question marks. Reading slower also lessens the likelihood that your eyes and brain will get ahead of you, causing you to stumble over words. Of course, if you practice reading your script aloud, you can also reduce the likelihood of mishaps, so make sure you practice the script several times aloud.

3. Rewrite where needed

Perhaps the script was written by someone else, and you are required to read it. There's nothing more awkward than reading a script written in someone else's voice (unless you're an actor, in which case that's the definition of your job).

If you are able to take some time with the script, find the awkward phrasing and expressions that don't sound like you and rewrite them in different words that do sound like you.

You may or may not have permission to change the script, but at least make a case for changing expressions that you would never use, like "Terrific!" to expressions you would use, like "Fabulous!" If the writer of the script is from a different part of the country, there may be regional words and phrases that don't sound natural coming from your mouth.

I'm reminded of working with a copywriter from England a while back on a sales page for my website. I changed a lot of his expressions that were not only things I wouldn't say, like "Shy Sally," and "bizarro," but were also clearly British! I rewrote instances of "whilst," "learnt," "click of the fingers" (instead of "snap of the fingers"), and other non-Southern-California-American-English content.

Even small changes that are more natural to your normal way of speaking will make a big impact on how you sound when reading the script.

Remember: A script is not a document. It's meant to be read aloud as speech. As such, it must be written as though you are speaking, not spoken as though it were writing. Got it? Good.

Read my follow-up post here: Another tip for reading from a script.

2 comments. Please add yours! :

menso said...

This guy recommends using a script too-->

He suggests reading it through 3 to 5 times so that you get the words just the way you want.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Actually, I DON'T recommend using a script. My suggestions are for when you have no choice. It's rare that someone who's not a professional speaker or actor will be able to sound natural reading from a script, even if they read through it 3 to 5 times. But if you have to use a script, then my suggestions above -- plus lots of practice -- will help!

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