Be Cautious When Using a Manuscript

The structure of a talk varies depending on the message and the messenger. Some speakers like to use the “manuscript method;” in which they write out their message word for word, and leave nothing to chance. These presenters have something specific to say, and they do not want any errors or omissions. Although this method has distinct advantages, it also comes with some inherent risks.

On the positive side of the ledger, using a manuscript allows presenters to fine-tune their words and meticulously craft their sentences. Hopefully, nothing they have prepared is missed or muffed. Nonetheless, I do not recommend this approach for most speakers, and here’s why. The best users of this method can speak without appearing to be reading from their script, thus keeping their skeleton hidden.

However, this takes a lot of practice and experience. Conversely, many speakers who use this method end up showing too much skeleton.

Using a manuscript is risky for many speakers because they end up paying more attention to the page than the people, and this makes connecting with the audience much more difficult. Failing to connect with the audience derails many presentations. On the other hand, connecting with listeners helps foster a friendlier and more forgiving speaking environment.

Tiger Woods is arguably the best golfer that ever lived. There is an old saying, “The bigger they are, the harder they fall,” and Tiger took a big tumble when news surfaced of his involvement in several extramarital affairs. Pursuant to his very publicized fall, Tiger enlisted professional help and enrolled in a forty-five day treatment program designed to help him begin a process of recovery. Needing to resurrect his tarnished image, he decided to hold an invitation-only press conference on February 19, 2010 that was broadcast live on ESPN. This gathering was intended to be a public platform for Mr. Woods to speak about personal and professional issues. I watched the event not only to hear what Tiger had to say, but to see how he would come across to the listening and viewing public. Understandably, he chose to speak from a manuscript. He knew every word spoken would be sliced and diced. The manuscript allowed him to choose his words carefully. There was no room for chance. Every word was calculated and every sentence crafted to convey exactly what Tiger wanted to say.

At the end of his talk, which might be better characterized as a long statement, he said what he planned to say. However, there was a problem. The manuscript had served him in one way, but failed him in another. The next day, the headline in the San Jose Mercury at the bottom of the sports page read, “Woods’ scripted apology perfectly awkward.” The article went on to say, “He stayed too on the script, maybe not in the eyes of public-relation’s advisers but definitely for the average fan. […] From the start, it was as awkward to watch as it must have been painfully uncomfortable for him to deliver. It looked too staged, too phony, like a Saturday Night Live skit with satin-blue curtains, a malfunctioning camera, and a lonely guy delivering an informercial-esque monologue.”[1]

In watching Tiger speak, it was evident he was not connecting with his audience. The manuscript he used dominated his attention. He continually looked down instead of out. Only a few times did he speak to his listeners and not at them. His approach resulted in many feeling that he was insincere about what he said.

Whether Tiger was sincere or not is unimportant for our purposes. I do not know him nor do I choose to judge him. However, we can see from this event how a manuscript can get between a speaker and the audience. Let me reiterate that I understand why Tiger chose to use a manuscript. In essence, he needed to be precise and did not want extra words diluting his message. Yet, in my opinion, and that of many others, the way he used his manuscript worked more to his detriment than to his advantage. So if you choose or need to use a manuscript, master the text. That way you can stay engaged with your audience while you talk. It is a mistake to neglect the people for the page. The audience needs to see your eyes, not the top of your head.

When all is said and done, if you must use a manuscript, by all means use it. However, if you do not need it, I encourage you to try an alternative structural method. Having said this, the manuscript method can be very useful, especially in more technical and scientific talks where facts and figures are plentiful and accuracy is essential. If you are in this kind of situation, try a manuscript. An alternative suggestion is to manuscript only the key segments of your talk, instead of the whole presentation. This will allow you to stay more engaged with your audience while remaining precise and accurate when that is essential.

[1] San Jose Mercury News, Sports pp. 1 and 3, Cam Inman, February 20, 2010.

Dr. Gary Rodriguez is President of LeaderMetrix and author of Purpose Centered Public Speaking

Gary is committed to helping aspiring and active speakers improve their presentations skills. This is accomplished through Purpose Centered Public Speaking Workshop and personal one on one mentoring. He also offers a free public speaking phobia test and monthly newsletter to those who visit his website.

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