Why do it out loud?

The following is adapted from a piece I originally wrote a decade ago, but it certainly still applies today.

Not long ago I heard a student give a speech that I know would have killed her had she been forced to sit in a classroom and listen to a professor lecture that way. She stood still as a statue, holding her notes in front of her, and read most if not all of the speech in a flat, sing-songy tone, the kind that movies use to stereotype boring speakers and teachers.

If you read a written “speech” out loud to the audience, why are you bothering to speak to them?

Wouldn’t it be simpler, easier, less nerve-wracking, and more time-efficient to just photocopy your manuscript?

Speakers represent an investment

Meetings cost companies a lot of money. Assume an average wage of $10 per hour per person. If you have 50 people in the room, the meeting costs $500 per hour. Even a 10-minute speech costs $83.33. That doesn’t even include the cost of the meeting room or refreshments.

Why should they gather to listen to you read from your piece of paper in that sing-song, flat, hypnotic tone that would put someone on cocaine to sleep, when you could photocopy it for $3.50? Heck, you could mail it to them for $20, including photocopying and postage.

The average speaker speaks at 150 words per minute, and even a slow reader can skim material at 250 words per minute. Most business people can manage 300 to 400 words per minute with little or no problem.

We don’t go hear someone speak just to save money on paper and postage. We gather together to hear speakers because we want more than the information they share with us. We want to see their eyes while they speak to know so we’ll know whether they believe what they’re telling us, whether they care about what they’re saying—whether they care about us. We want to see their passion.

When we hear them speak, we get a better sense of the big picture and how the details fit into it (we can get lost in the details on paper). We connect with the human being.

Speaking adds power when done properly

We will forget the details the speaker tells us. But we will remember the impression the speaker makes with those details, when they are delivered with conviction. If we need the details later, we can get them from the handouts or the Web page or the book. But none of those will substitute for the deep impression the speaker makes when s/he speaks to us about something s/he cares deeply about.

We may or may not remember the proofs, but we will remember whether the speaker convinced us with the power of his/her logic–but only if we hear the arguments, and we won’t hear the arguments if we have been lulled to sleep. That’s likely what happens when someone stands up in front and reads to us or delivers a memorized speech.

Students fear they will forget what they want to say, so they bring their pieces of paper or their memorized performances and make speechlike sounds, believing they are making a speech. They have little or no effect on the audience that way.

Speak, don’t read!

Whatever you do, no matter how scary, have a guided conversation with your audience (a conversation, by definition, is not totally under your control). Do not write out your speech and read it to them! It wastes their time and yours, and it wastes your opportunity to harness the power of public speaking. Save yourself (and the audience) some grief. Either speak to the audience, or give them copies of what you’re written.

Because no matter your justification, without actor’s training it is really impossible to read to an audience; you can only read at them.

That doesn’t mean you have to do without notes. Make the same kind of notes you would take with you to the grocery store. When you make a shopping list, you just put “TP” on it when you need toilet paper. You don’t need to put what brand and how many rolls and how many ply, because it’s your list.

This isn’t an excuse to “wing it.” Prepare. Get your ideas straight. Plan your organization. Marshall your facts. All of that will create an impression on the audience and give power to your ideas. But it will all have no effect unless you speak it to them with conviction.

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Author: Donn King

Donn King works with people who want to forge top-notch speaking skills to increase their influence and impact so they can advance their career or business. He is associate professor of communication studies at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, as well as a speaker and writer. His background includes ministry, newspaper, radio, small magazines and other publications, as well as co-authoring a textbook and blogging.