- Can you pronounce everything in the text? I once wrote a script for a client who neglected to tell me that she "pops" the letter P when she speaks, and wanted to avoid it if possible. (And yes, that speech was loaded with Ps.) If someone's preparing a text for you to speak from, clue them in to any pronunciation issues you may have. Practice aloud to make sure you're not going to stumble over how to say something, and make changes as needed before you get up to speak.
- Are you telling a personal story? Make sure it's not written down. Whether you are working with a speechwriter or writing your own text, just insert "TELL VACUUM CLEANER STORY HERE" rather than try to script something you can tell without effort. This will force you to look at the audience, helping you to connect, and it will sound less stilted.
- Check the format. Your working copy of a speech should look much different than the pretty version you'll publish on the web or hand out to the press. You may want to make sure that the text keeps whole paragraphs on one page, or includes notes to yourself about delivery and emphasis, or just limit the number of lines to the top half of the page to keep you from looking further and further down. Experiment with a few formats to see what works for you.
- Check the type size. Likewise, you'll need to experiment with type size to see which one helps you speak smoothly. I'm fond of using a Kindle or other tablet for notes, which will allow you to adjust the type size on the fly.
- Check the distance from your face to the lectern. You'd think all lecterns were standardized, but they're not--and neither is the height and vision of the speaker. It's another good reason to get on the stage and see for yourself whether you need to make adjustments, rather than wait until the last minute. Watch this cautionary tale, a video of actress Sally Field, who found that stage managers had overcompensated for her short stature, putting her too far above the place where her text had to sit.
- Avoid two-sided printing. Your quest to be environmentally friendly won't help you much if you drop your pages and have to reorder them quickly, or simply forget to turn the page over. Many speakers find they've left out several paragraphs in this way.
- If your text is on a monitor, pare it down if you can to a minimal version. You want to be able to scan keywords, not read every comma.
- Give advance copies to the interpreters, the press room, the social-media team and the moderator. Think about others who might find your talk's text useful. Who's live-tweeting? Who needs time to anticipate what you will say, so they can do their job more effectively?
- Are you speaking in a language other than your own? If you are working from a text that's not in your first language, you need to include pauses, eye contact, body language and other non-verbal aids to understanding. "As soon as people talk to a piece of paper, they lose," says José Iturri, a senior Spanish interpreter at the European Commission, who actually puts trainees into the interpreters' booth so they can get a feel for what they're doing as speakers. Watch the video below for a taste of this training. Iturri and I both spoke at the European Speechwriters Network conference in London in May. He's an energetic and effective guide to using texts well. (Iturri also begs speakers and speechwriters to make sure the interpreter has your text in advance, a step often missed.)
If you found this post useful, please subscribe or make a one-time donation to help support the thousands of hours that go into researching and curating this content for you.