This is a blog post I’ve been wanting to write for a while, but decided to wait until. after the CILIP Wales conference for a couple of reasons: I wanted to give my method one more try, before advocating it to you all; and I didn’t want to create any false expectations for the CILIP Wales audience!

There’ve been a couple of blog posts about presenting recently, from Ned Potter and Phil Bradley. Very good advice, in general, and from luminaries I wouldn’t usually disagree with. But in this case, there is one particular piece of advice in both blogs that I have to take exception to:

Don’t read your presentation.

Ned says (slide 6) Don’t even get me started on this. Written prose has different phraseology, different tones, different nuances, different EVERYTHING from stuff you say out loud. If you’re reading your presentation out, IT IS AWFUL.

Phil’s advice: Don’t read from your notes! Key words, bullet points are all you should have, in my opinion. If you have more, it’s going to tempt you to read what you’ve written, and that’s never going to go down well. That’s what rehearsing is for.

Now, I totally, absolutely agree with them in many ways. Don’t write an essay, print it out in 10pt type, then stand at the front with it up to your nose, reading in a monotone. By the time you look up, you won’t have an audience left.

But that’s not to say that scripting and then reading is always wrong. I do it all the time. Yup, if you’ve ever seen me do a presentation (as opposed to a training session) it was all scripted. Down to the last ‘umm’ ‘errr’ and the always optimistic ‘pause for laughter’. And it works for me! After my CILIP Wales presentation on Friday, someone came up to me and said ‘How did you do all that without any notes?’ My answer? ‘I don’t! Full script in front of me.’

I’d love to be able to talk off the cuff, come up with apt and informative points based on minimal notes, but I can’t. No matter how many times I practice, if I don’t know exactly what I’m going to say next, I go all of a flutter, and end up saying nothing but ‘umm… errr… umm’. Even if the audience don’t notice that I’m having a panic attack, I’m still having one! And that made presenting a thing of horror for me. The results may have been acceptable, but they weren’t good – and I wasn’t happy. So, I decided to break the ‘rules’ of presenting, and go scripted…

It is possible to have a fully scripted presentation in front of you, without looking like you’re reading it. How? Here’s what works for me:

  1. Get your tone right! As Ned says, written prose is very different to prose designed to be spoken. Spoken prose is a lot more informal, a lot chattier – even if intended for a formal presentation! I’m lucky, as that’s the sort of voice I naturally write in – most of what I write on this blog, for instance, could be presented orally without many changes. If you don’t usually have that type of voice, a few tips:
    • Keep it simple. When speaking, short simple words and sentence structure work best. Don’t include any words you’re not absolutely positive you can pronounce – and pronounce under pressure, with a dry mouth! Simple words are often also the most evocative for a presentation – the sort of words we’re used to hearing, in speech and in stories. Throw as much of your jargon away as you possibly can.
    • Keep your sentence structure simple too. Unless you’re really confident that you can keep the thread of understanding going through your delivery, avoid subordinate clauses. Ditch those semi-colons. Remember that people can’t glance back up the page to check what the subject of your sentence was, so…
    • Use a lot of proper nouns. Where in written prose you’d shake things up a bit (eg ‘Voices for the Library’ ‘Voices’ ‘VftL’ ‘we’ ‘the team’ all referring to the same set of people), in spoken prose you might find it better to choose a proper noun, and stick to it. It means there’s no ambiguity for the audience to work out: important as listeners, unlike readers, don’t have the luxury of being able to pause to work out who/what is being referred to.
    • Repeat yourself! We’ve all heard about the ‘rule of three‘ – again, it’s something that might seem unnatural when you’re writing, but is incredibly effective when you’re speaking. Remember Tony Blair’s ‘Education, education, education’? No matter what you think of Labour’s education policies, there’s no denying it was an effective and memorable public speaking moment.
    • Remember that you have your voice and body language to help you! Something that might seem to need clarifying on the page (‘is she being sarcastic?’) may be entirely comprehensible when delivered – given it’s meaning by your tone of voice and facial expressions. If you feel that you need to indicate this to yourself on the page, try using smilies. You might feel a bit naff, but it’s ok, no-one else will see your script ;)
  2. Practice! Practice is key – it’s what will allow you to make your scripted presentation seem spontaneous and immediate. I’d advise at least 3 full run-throughs, however works best for you (I can’t abide watching myself in a mirror, for instance). Your first run-through should highlight any problems that are in your script: words and phrases that you stumble over; places where the structure doesn’t work, or your meaning becomes blurred. Note these down, and redraft before practising again.
  3. Learn it! Sounds daunting as anything, no? Having to memorise 4000 words or so? It’s really not. In fact, it doesn’t really require any extra effort. By the time you’ve written, practised, re-written, practised again, you’ll have a pretty good idea what’s coming next. After all, it’s yours. You wrote it. It’s not like trying to memorise something by someone else where you have no idea of the way their brain works, no idea of where they might have gone next, or what phrases they may have used. And a pretty good idea of what comes next is all you need, because you have…
  4. Your script. By the time you’ve got to this point, your script should be like a lifeboat – not vital to get you where you need to be, but not something you’d want to set off without. You should know your work well enough by now that a glance at your script can get you through a sentence or two – delivered with your head up high, making eye contact with the audience, before a glance back down to remind yourself of the next couple of sentences. This might take a bit of practice, but you will get used to it! There are various things you can try to help you along – try bolding or highlighting key words/phrases, so they jump out at you when you look at your script. Use large text on small-ish bits of paper – A4 is far too easy to lose your place on! I usually present from A5 paper, numbered in the top right. This time, however, I tried presenting with my script on my kindle, and it worked fantastically! Easy to read, font can be as big as you like, no worries about turning over two sheets at once, or scattering your notes across the floor with an ill-timed sweep of the arm.
  5. Follow-up! Guess what else having a nice script ready is good for? An instant, no-hassle blog-post after the event :) Watch this space for my CILIP Wales script coming up soon – and you can see if I’ve followed all my own rules!

I’m not saying that this is the only way to do presentations – but it is a valid way, and one that works for me. If you get very nervous about presenting, like to be sure of remembering your nice flowery phrases, or simply want to try a new style, why not give it a go? It might help you feel better and more relaxed about presenting, which will make you a more interesting and engaging speaker – and here, Phil gets my whole-hearted agreement:

People won’t remember what you said. They won’t remember what you taught them. They remember how you made them feel. If you’re enthusiastic, keen, interested and having fun, the chances are very high that they will as well. The most informative, useful and valuable presentations are dead in the water if they’re poorly presented by someone who doesn’t give a f… er.. flying monkey. Take a look at the really good presenters – Clay Shirky, Sir Ken, Steve Jobs, and see how they do it. They’re enjoying themselves, and we enjoy it as well.

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