Extemporizing29 Jul 2009
Why don’t people speak from notes any more? Is this part of Powerpoint disease? Why treat an address to 200 people as equivalent to a quick presentation to 20 people in the board room? Is it because we just find writing things down too much work?
Barack Obama isn’t too proud to speak using notes (famously on a tele-prompter), and this despite being really, really good at winging it! He recognizes that having his speech written down frees him up during the presentation to concentrate on … presentation! On making his speaking as clear and interesting as possible, with intonation, pace, and articulation.
When you are extemporizing, you tend to use the same speech patterns, words and rhythms over and over again. It makes your speaking boring to listen to. You also pause a lot in awkward places which breaks up your thoughts in confusing ways. You say “um” a great deal.
When you have 200 people listening to you, every second you waste as a presenter wastes an aggregate 3.3 minutes in your audience! “Ummmmm…” 3.3 minutes!
If you write down your presentation, word for word, in advance, you have all sorts of advantages. You can edit out wasted thoughts, repetitions, pointless asides. You can structure passages to sound good when spoken, using tricks like alliteration, or matching metre in repeated thoughts.
When you write out your presentation ahead of time, you can precisely calibrate your presentation to match the allotted time. Either read out 100 words and see how fast you tend to speak, or just use some rules of thumb like 1000-words-per-10-minutes.
But is reading out things is too hard? Are you squinting down at the podium? Losing your place? Don’t! You might not have a teleprompter like Barack Obama, but you can still prepare your notes for easy presentation.
First, print them out in 16 or 18 point type. Then, break them up so that each line of the print out scans as a complete spoken phrase. If you’re working with a slide deck, add in marks to remind you about slide transitions.
When presenting with notes and a deck, I try to have one slide every 30 seconds or less. That’s hard to manage extemporaneously (it is so easy to forget a transition and end up out of synch), but when everything is written down there is no limit to how dense you can make your visual materials. And as an added bonus, a continuous flow of visuals also helps keep your audience engaged.
So, next time you are going before a big audience, consider doing some serious preparation, write things down in full, hone your language and make your point as sharply as possible.
It is respectful of your audience’s time.
- You’ll give a better presentation.
- Your content will be crisper and more understandable.
- Your audience will be more engaged.
- You will look like a superstar.