by Steve Adubato, PhD

The case of “Where’s Page Ten?,” experienced early this month by US Senate candidate in New York Jeanine Pirro, provides a powerful lesson in the dangers of being too scripted for a public speech. Many professionals are convinced that in order to present, they must have a written text of every word carefully prepared when they must stand and deliver. Not so.

Such a constricted communication style is wrought with unnecessary risks and potential pitfalls. Mrs. Pirro experienced one that was particularly embarrassing. As she stood there announcing her candidacy, saying, “Hilary Clinton…” Then came 32 seconds of awkward and painful silence. She looked around as her audience became nervous and perplexed. Mrs. Pirro finally uttered these unforgettable words, “Where’s page ten?” She was stopped dead in her tracks by one missing page. No ad libbing. No ability to comfortably stall while a staffer retrieved the page. No ability to communicate in her own words why she was standing there.

Some questions to consider:

Q—What are the biggest risks with reading verbatim from a written text?

A—Losing your place, obviously having a page or section missing, or a stilted delivery style that focuses more on the mechanics of reading than the importance of connecting with your audience. Scripted communicators often speak in a monotone instead of a more conversational, natural style. There is also little eye contact since the speaker’s eyes are focused on the written page. And voice projection is limited because the person is facing down as opposed to straight ahead.

Q—So how can you be prepared to communicate in public without a written text?

A—Use a bulleted outline with a few key words or phrases that center you on exactly what you want to say and why you want to say it. Make sure the words are bold enough to see with an inch or so of “white space” in between. I’m not talking complete sentences. In fact, no more than three or four words should comprise a single bullet.

Q—But how do you fill in the white space between the bulleted points?

A—You have to trust yourself. You must believe enough in what you are saying to be confident that between the bullets you will speak in a passionate and natural fashion. Those bullets are yours, not some speechwriter. They represent your main messages. Confidence comes from truly believing you have something to say that will make a difference. It also comes from knowing that you are in a unique position to be saying it. Also, the more you practice with a bulleted outline, the more effective you will be in using this communication approach.

Q—Why do so many public speakers read from a written text if this communication approach is so ineffective?

A—Habit, poor public speaking training, watching others do it, going through the motions and finally, taking the counterproductive approach of saying, “I really don’t want to do this speech, but at least if I’ve got it written, all I’ll have to do is read it.” The other reason is that people have the wrong idea that a presentation is about getting all the words exactly right as opposed to communicating a persuasive and powerful message. The other issue is that many people believe there is no real alternative to this approach. They incorrectly assume that people that don’t read speeches are simply winging it or shooting from the hip. In most cases, that’s just not true. Rather, the speaker is using the more constructive and practical bulleted outline approach.

Do you read your speeches? How does it feel? Would you be open to the bulleted outline approach?