Reading a Speech

Seth Godin is the author of several books about “marketing, the spread of ideas and managing both customers and employees with respect”. They are bestsellers. His blog is one of my favourites and I highly recommend it.

In the blog post below from 13 January 2012, Seth discusses why, in his opinion, reading a speech is not a good idea. In short, he believes that reading out loud is different from speaking without notes. We are more natural and show more of our humanity if we speak to the audience and not read to them.

Notes in a speech

I agree. If you can learn your material well enough to be able to speak without notes, it is the best scenario for several reasons:

  • You will not be stuck behind a lectern. You will be able to move about freely and engage the audience more.

Yes, reading a speech can be effective, but it is not easy. Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama come to mind in this respect. Obama is particularly good in this respect, although he usually has a teleprompter to each side to give him the appearance (especially on TV) of speaking without notes. Chances are you will not be using a teleprompter.

If you must read your speech word for word, there are a few things that you can do to make it a successful.

  • Write the speech in a way that is natural for your style of speaking.
  • Keep the sentences relatively short so that you don’t have to pause for a breath in the middle.

Notwithstanding the advice above, a much better middle ground, in my view, is to have notes that set out your key points and ideas, but not the entire speech. That way you have a guide to help ensure you don’t get lost, but at the same time you are not chained to the text. You can quickly glance at the next point to be covered and then look up and talk about it. If you do use notes in this way, here are some tips.

When it comes to giving a speech, speaking without notes is best and speaking with succinct, focused notes is next best. Reading a speech is the least preferable option. But don’t worry if you absolutely have to read your speech. Use it as a starting point and work on reducing your notes at a pace that is comfortable for you.

Photo courtesy of deVos / Flickr


Your Voice Will Give You Away

by Seth Godin

It’s extremely difficult to read a speech and sound as if you mean it.

For most of us, when reading, posture changes, the throat tightens and people can tell. Reading is different from speaking, and a different sort of attention is paid.

Before you give a speech, then, you must do one of two things if your goal is to persuade:

Learn to read the same way you speak (unlikely) …

… or, learn to speak without reading. Learn your message well enough that you can communicate it without reading it. We want your humanity.

If you can’t do that, don’t bother giving a speech. Just send everyone a memo and save time and stress for all concerned.

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  1. Use images in a Mind Map rather than text.
    You know the story. The image will trigger your memory and you’ll talk to the audience rather that read to them.
    Use Mind Maps to Develop, Practice, and Deliver your Presentations and they will be – NO SWEAT!
    Thanks for the Post, John!

    1. Thanks, Fred. I agree with you – a mind map is a powerful tool and much better than the full text. I do know people who say that they don’t like mind maps and find it difficult to work with them. For them, clear and succinct notes are a good alternative.

      1. You’re right John. According to the MBTI stats, about half the population will find things like MindMaps less helpful than proponents say they will.
        BTW – I love the idea of writing like a poem – very handy!
        A lot of my clients find that keywords in Presenter View is the way to go – simple reminders on the screen in front of them (that the audience can’t see). I wonder, sometimes, if the process of creating the keywords fixes things in people’s heads enough to mean the keywords work (if you see what I mean) … in other words, it’s not what system you use that matter, it’s that you go through the process of CREATING the system …?

        1. Thanks for the comment, Simon, and the information about the MBTI statistics. Personally, I don’t use mind maps, but if that works for people, I say go for it. The Presenter View approach is another option, although I find it to be a lot of information for me. When I do a slide presentation, the slides are usually sufficient for me to keep track of my thoughts. Of course, we should not be cramming our slides full of text, but images and key words are more than sufficient to trigger a thought.
          I think that you are spot on about the effort that one puts into “creating the system” as you put it. The more effort that goes into the process, the greater the odds that the messages will stick in your mind (and resonate with the audience too).

  2. John, I believe that reading a speech word for word from a piece of paper is one of the worst things a public speaker can do. It’s a terrible, sleep-inducing experience for the audience. So, in that respect, I agree with Seth Godin. However, I don’t believe that attempting a speech or presentation notes-free is such a great idea either. It’s too easy to forget material or lose your place. Of course, some people seem to excel at notes-free public speaking. And there are certain types of speeches that this style is more suited to. Motivational talks and speeches with a lot of personal stories come to mind. But the majority of us, especially new speakers, should prepare good, concise outlines for our talks. I think that’s the best, safest option available.

    1. Fair comments all around, Dave. I agree that most people cannot read a speech nearly as well as, say, Ronald Reagan. So having key notes to which one can quickly refer is a good idea for many people who have to give a speech. Presentations, in my view, are a slightly different animal, especially if you are using slides. In such cases, the slides themselves can serve as the prompts. They need not (and should not) be full of text; an image or key word could suffice. And, putting thought into your slides will not only yield a set of subtle speaking prompts, it will also contribute to an effective presentation.
      Thanks for contributing to the discussion.

  3. Hi John. Like Simon, I love the idea of writing in poem form. It’s such a simple idea, I feel like kicking myself for not thinking of it. Another tip for writing out a speech, if you MUST read it, is to write in a bigger font so you can place the sheets on a lectern and step back from it.
    I’m going to have to check out that mind map thing, too.

    1. Thanks, Mike. As is so often the case with good ideas, it seems so simple and obvious after the fact. Don’t worry, I’ve kicked myself plenty over the years over a variety of matters, public speaking and otherwise!
      You’re definitely right about writing the speech (or notes) in bigger font. One should not have to bend over or pick up the notes to be able to read them clearly. Another idea is to have the note written on double-sided paper and placed in a binder that can open and stay flat. The notes are guaranteed to stay in order and you only have to turn the pages half as often as, after the first page, there will always be two pages facing you.

  4. Wow this is interesting – there is a saying that goes among young academics taking part in conferences, that each time a person reads his or her talk, a panda bear out there dies – this is how they hate it and personally I facing a situation where it would probably be a better pick to read it as I was really nervous.
    Now only rarely, at where I work, take part in conferences – ironically I’m involved in lectern-making. Life’s strange.
    Too bad rhetoric isn’t taught in my country more pervasively at college – along with logic and debate participation.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I love the “panda dying” reference. In my experience, most people know their material better than they think they do. Often I will work with someone who is just reading off the slides. I will walk up, make the screen go black and tell them, “OK, imagine that your computer has just died. Give us that slide without the slide.” Every time they can do it and every time they do it much better than when they were reading it.

      If you absolutely need notes, just write down a few key points (in large font) that remind you of the topics and then talk about those topic. The result will be much better. Good luck!

  5. Not sure about this mate. All Royal Families all over the world always read their speeches. Barack Obama, arguably the most eloquent statesman, also reads his speeches; and whenever he doesn’t, he stutters a lot. Steve Jobs reads on a teleprompter.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Eihad. While it is certainly possible to read a speech well – the commencement speeches of Steve Jobs and Neil Gaiman come to mind – in my experience, most people end up staring at the paper and reading in a monotone voice the whole time. I agree with you about Obama and have frequently said that without a teleprompter, he stutters a lot. This does not negate the fact that he is an eloquent speaker. In fact, speaking well with a teleprompter is its own special skill, and one that Obama mastered. My point in this post is that when people prepare enough so that they know the points they want to make and the order in which they want to make them, they will almost always have a better connection with the audience if they talk to them instead of read to them. If they need a few notes to remind themselves of the points, that is fine.

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John delivered a keynote address about the importance of public speaking to 80 senior members of Gore’s Medical Device Europe team at an important sales event. He was informative, engaging and inspirational. Everyone was motivated to improve their public speaking skills. Following his keynote, John has led public speaking workshops for Gore in Barcelona and Munich. He is an outstanding speaker who thinks carefully about the needs of his audience well before he steps on stage.

Karsta Goetze

TA Leader, Gore and Associates

I first got in touch with John while preparing to speak at TED Global about my work on ProtonMail. John helped me to sharpen the presentation and get on point faster, making the talk more focused and impactful. My speech was very well received, has since reached almost 1.8 million people and was successful in explaining a complex subject (email encryption) to a general audience.

Andy Yen

CEO, Proton Technologies

John gave the opening keynote on the second day of our unit’s recent offsite in Geneva, addressing an audience of 100+ attendees with a wealth of tips and techniques to deliver powerful, memorable presentations. I applied some of these techniques the very next week in an internal presentation, and I’ve been asked to give that presentation again to senior management, which has NEVER happened before. John is one of the greatest speakers I know and I can recommend his services without reservation.

David Lindelöf

Senior Data Scientist, Expedia Group

After a morning of team building activities using improvisation as the conduit, John came on stage to close the staff event which was organised in Chamonix, France. His energy and presence were immediately felt by all the members of staff. The work put into the preparation of his speech was evident and by sharing some his own stories, he was able to conduct a closing inspirational speech which was relevant, powerful and impactful for all at IRU. The whole team left feeling engaged and motivated to tackle the 2019 objectives ahead. Thank you, John.

Umberto de Pretto

Secretary General, World Road Transport Organization

I was expecting a few speaking tips and tricks and a few fun exercises, but you went above and beyond – and sideways. You taught me to stand tall. You taught me to anchor myself. You taught me to breathe. You taught me to open up. You taught me to look people in the eye. You taught me to tell the truth. You taught me to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. I got more than I bargained for in the best possible way.

Thuy Khoc-Bilon

World Cancer Day Campaign Manager, Union for International Cancer Control

John gave a brilliant presentation on public speaking during the UN EMERGE programme in Geneva (a two days workshop on leadership development for a group of female staff members working in the UN organizations in Geneva). His talk was inspirational and practical, thanks to the many techniques and tips he shared with the audience. His teaching can dramatically change our public speaking performance and enable us as presenters to have a real and powerful impact. Thank you, John, for your great contribution!

Sara Canna

HR Specialist, World Health Organization

John is a genuine communication innovator. His seminars on gamification of public speaking learning and his interactive Rhetoric game at our conference set the tone for change and improvement in our organisation. The quality of his input, the impact he made with his audience and his effortlessly engaging style made it easy to get on board with his core messages and won over some delegates who were extremely skeptical as to the efficacy of games for learning. I simply cannot recommend him highly enough.

Thomas Scott

National Education Director, Association of Speakers Clubs UK

John joined our Global Sales Meeting in Segovia, Spain and we all participated in his "Improv(e) your Work!" session. I say “all” because it really was all interactive, participatory, learning and enjoyable. The session surprised everybody and was a fresh-air activity that brought a lot of self-reflection and insights to improve trust and confidence in each other inside our team. It´s all about communication and a good manner of speaking!"

Jon Lopez

General Manager Europe, Hayward Industries

Thank you very much for the excellent presentation skills session. The feedback I received was very positive. Everyone enjoyed the good mix of listening to your speech, co-developing a concrete take-away and the personal learning experience. We all feel more devoted to the task ahead, more able to succeed and an elevated team spirit. Delivering this in a short time, both in session and in preparation, is outstanding!

Henning Dehler

CFO European Dairy Supply Chain & Operations, Danone

Thanks to John’s excellent workshop, I have learned many important tips and techniques to become an effective public speaker. John is a fantastic speaker and teacher, with extensive knowledge of the field. His workshop was a great experience and has proven extremely useful for me in my professional and personal life.

Eric Thuillard

Senior Sales Manager, Sunrise Communications

John’s presentation skills training was a terrific investment of my time. I increased my skills in this important area and feel more comfortable when speaking to an audience. John provided the right mix between theory and practice.

Diego Brait

Director of the Jura Region, BKW Energie AG

Be BOLD. Those two words got stuck in my head and in the heads of all those ADP leaders and associates that had the privilege to see John on stage. He was our keynote speaker at our annual convention in Barcelona, and his message still remains! John puts his heart in every word. Few speakers are so credible, humble and yet super strong with large audiences!

Guadalupe Garcia

Senior Director and Talent Partner, ADP International