Presentation Pitfalls #8 – Reading instead of connecting

The speech was fantastic, one of the best I have heard. It must have taken a long time to craft. It was a masterpiece of motivational and inspirational rhetoric.

The speaker’s voice was deep and powerful, well suited to the stage, and carried well in the large marquee thanks to the excellent sound system. He spoke slowly, carefully and clearly.

There were no visuals, but the speech didn’t need any. At least there were no sub-standard visuals to distract us from the speaker and his message.

Sound good so far? Of course. So what made this one of the most painful speeches I have sat through in recent years?

Sadly, it doesn’t take much to ruin a good speech, and there were two key points which spoiled this one. The first was that every sentence sounded the same – the same tone, the same volume, the same mood. Every word was clearly pronounced but if you switched off from the articulation and just listened to it as if it were music, it was a monotonous dirge. Speakers need to learn to modulate their rhythm, to pause, to accelerate and to slow down, and to put some passion into what they are saying. Here, sadly, there was no passion.

The speaker may have got away with this – to be fair, one of my friends in the audience felt that it came across well enough, although she was very much in the minority. However, he made one absolutely fatal mistake which rendered all the time spent crafting the speech worthless.

He never once looked up from his notes.

Not once did he attempt to make a connection with the audience. Not once did he attempt even to simulate eye-contact. His eyes were solely on his transcript, which he read to us as if he were a judge reading a charge sheet. You could hear that it was being read. The words audibly came from the page, not from the heart.

It doesn’t need to be this way. Take two contrasting presidents as an example.

President Sarkozy of France is a capable speaker and debater, but he tends to read speeches from notes on the podium, and although he has learnt to address the audience while doing so, looking up frequently, he still ends up looking down half the time.

President Obama, on the other hand, makes liberal use of teleprompters, usually having at least three identical screens centre, left and right, so he can appear to look around his audience when in fact he is just looking at each teleprompter in turn. It looks real enough and he is very adept at this. Moreover, it works not because reading a teleprompter is easier than reading notes, but because he knows the speech already, and knows how he wants to say each part before it comes up on the screen. It is therefore possible for Obama to speak with passion and modulate his rhythm, where an under-prepared speaker would struggle to do so. (Witness the teleprompter gaffe by UK Labour politician David Miliband recently.)

Personally, I don’t like teleprompters much, mainly because I don’t like everything to be completely scripted. For the same reason, I don’t like to have a transcript with me on stage. I like to connect with audiences and adapt my style and words to how they are reacting. Therefore I recommend thorough preparation, and just in case, a single page of short notes which you can keep handy on stage – just enough to remind you of your train of thought in case you lose the flow and need to remember what you planned to say next. I can usually manage half a day with a single A4 sheet of bullet-point reminders in two columns.

(In fact, the only place a presenter should use bullet-points is in his or her private speaker notes.)

Whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of writing key points on your hand. It looks extremely dumb, as US politician Sarah Palin discovered at a Tea Party speech.

Nobody will think any the less of you for bringing a single sheet of paper on stage. You are not expected to be a Shakespearean actor and learn everything by heart. You are expected to have prepared something though, and that single page is the right compromise, making the statement: “I have prepared this talk, and I know it well enough that I don’t need to read it, so I just brought a reminder of the key points.”

What is more, that sheet is also the right compromise for you, giving you the comfort of knowing that you have help on hand if you lose your flow, while also requiring you to spend most of your time looking up, and making a connection with the audience. It makes for a far better speech.

Happily, the dirge-like speech I mentioned earlier was followed by another one. It had less rhetoric, was less overtly inspirational, and it was shorter. The speaker did not have such a powerful voice. However, he started by making a connection with the audience, and never let it drop, referring only fleetingly to the page of notes he had brought, just in case. It was less ambitious, but it worked far better than the first speech. The speaker also smiled. And so did the audience.


Don’t learn your speech by heart, and don’t bring a transcript on stage. Learn it well enough, run through it a few times, and produce a single sheet of paper with simple bullet-style points to remind you of the intended flow of your presentation. While on stage, connect with the audience, use eye-contact appropriately, and only look down at your notes when you really need to. This way you can speak from the heart, not from the page, and you can bring passion and energy to your speech.

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