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.

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.
    • If you have to read your speech and there is no lectern, you will have to hold your notes. Not only will this limit your ability to gesture, it will more readily call attention to any nervousness that you feel. Hands have a way of trembling, (especially when we are trying to hold them still) and those tremble are magnified by the paper.
    • You will be able to maintain eye contact with the audience.
    • It will feel more natural for everyone.

This is not to say that one can never read a speech effectively. It is possible, though not necessarily 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 teleprompters very often.

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.
    • Don’t write the speech out in paragraph form (as in the photo). It is too easy to lose your spot. Rather, write the speech like a poem.
    • Look up from your notes as often as possible. Getting comfortable with pausing will help in this regard.
    • Don’t forget to add vocal variety as you read.
    • Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.

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.

The bottom line is that when it comes to giving a speech, speaking without notes is best, and speaking with succinct, focused notes is next best. Reading the entire 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.


About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
This entry was posted in Delivery, Seth Godin and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Reading a Speech

  1. Pingback: Analysis of a Speech by Andrew Solomon | Manner of Speaking

  2. awartgroup says:

    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.

    • John Zimmer says:

      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!

  3. Pingback: 14 Public Speaking Lessons from the United States Supreme Court | Manner of Speaking

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  5. speakingwithmike says:

    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.

    • John Zimmer says:

      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.



  6. Dave Clark says:

    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.

    • John Zimmer says:

      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.


  7. 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!

    • John Zimmer says:

      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.


      • Simon Raybould says:

        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 …?


        • John Zimmer says:

          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).



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