I’ve just finished coaching a group making a pitch for a very large grant. The pitches were virtual – the entire team was spread out over multiple locations and continents. While everyone agreed that an in-person presentation would be preferred, that opportunity was not available.
There were two more constraints that made this an interesting coaching assignment: the time was strictly controlled (the presentation HAD to finish in a certain amount of time) and there were specific questions and topics that HAD to be addressed. While the dynamic team would excel in an open discussion, the rules of engagement dictated a different approach. Given that they wanted to communicate probably four times more information than they had time to share and their preparation time was limited (they all had other full-time jobs and they had less than two weeks’ notice to finalize the content), the only real option was to create a script and follow it word-for-word.
The speech coach in me recoils at even typing that sentence, especially since it was my advice that got us to that conclusion. I’m a huge fan of topics and points and letting the words come out however they may. My own notes often are a single sheet of paper with single words and phrases that serve me for multiple hours of content (admittedly, most of my content is well-rehearsed and has been given dozens, if not hundreds, of times.) The rule of thumb I’ve followed for years is the more critical the message, the more scripted it needs to be. Because of the temptation to ramble and our limited time to practice, reading a script was the solution of choice here.
Reading in a virtual environment solves several problems that plague many speakers. First, we can predict within a few seconds how long the presentation will take. Timing in rehearsals was remarkably consistent. Second, if we have technical difficulties, there is a plan in place for someone else to step in and read the script. And third, anxiety is reduced significantly because the presenters don’t have to rely on memory and can even ignore the audience for the most part (we coach them to look at the camera, not the Brady Bunch pictures on the screen).
But reading creates other challenges. The biggest and most significant is we don’t want to appear like we’re reading. An audience older than kindergartners doesn’t like to be read to. When we coach live speakers, we enforce the rule that you are never to speak when reading except in the case of a direct quote. Never. But in this scenario, the presenters will be reading every word.
Here are three tips for reading a virtual script to make it seem like you’re not reading.
- Put the script near the camera. The ideal situation would be a teleprompter, but few individuals have the setup – or the skill – to pull this off. The news you watch at six o’clock (does anyone still watch the news?) is read word-for-word from a teleprompter. But the tip for us amateurs is to look into the camera. Whether your script is on paper or on a screen, position it directly below the camera so it appears you’re looking into the camera. Most web cameras aren’t of sufficient resolution and a tight enough crop to allow your audience to see that you’re reading. Unless you sound like you’re reading. Enter tip number two.
- Write – and rewrite – the script to be conversational. Most of us write very differently from how we speak. I know – we’re in the middle of scripting our huge video project and it’s a constant struggle to make the written words sound like I am presenting in a conversation. Read your script aloud as you write. When you find places that need a little extra emphasis or feel it is advantageous to slow down, you can write that directly into the script in a separate color or style. You can even script gestures and facial expressions. No one but you will see your notes. Make them work for you.
- Practice. Don’t rehearse, practice. Rehearsal is reading the entire script through. Practice is working on small snippets to get them right. Opens, closes, and transitions are particularly important and worthy of multiple passes until you get them right.
I am a huge fan of video review for presenters. Tools like Yoodli give you feedback on your pacing, non-words, word choice, inflection, and more. But there is one HUGE secret to video review that most people miss. You have to watch and study your efforts. It doesn’t take long (you can watch it sped up), but watching yourself is a great motivator and will highlight what needs work.
With a lot of work and a little review, you can read a script word-for-word and sound like you’re just having a normal conversation. It’s a skill worth having, especially when the stakes are high.
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This article was published in the November edition of our monthly speaking tips email newsletter, Communication Matters. Have speaking tips like these delivered straight to your inbox every month. Sign up today to receive our newsletter and receive our FREE eBook, “Twelve Tips that will Save You from Making a Bad Presentation.” You can unsubscribe at any time.