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When should you script your talk?

March 12, 2011 Filed under Blog, Featured, Presentations 

For people with little experience in giving public talks, I recommend two things. First, practice, practice, practice. The more you rehearse your talk, the more confident you will be and the more likely you will give a good presentation. How many times is enough? That depends, but if you are giving your first conference-style presentation (10–15 minutes long), I recommend rehearsing 6–10 times beforehand and revising your talk after each time as you expose weaknesses in your delivery or the slides.

Second, (actually first, in what you do) is that I advocate that you script the presentation in its entirety. The reason you might do this is that it allows you to focus on what you want to say and what you don’t need to say. It also lets you choose your words carefully, with the goal that you will remember much of what you wrote simply because you wrote it down in the first place.

As you get more experienced, feel free to wean yourself off of the scripted notes, perhaps only scripting the first few slides to ease you into the presentation. Sometimes when I start creating a new presentation, I script out difficult sections where I want to be especially clear or I want to choose my words carefully.

The goal is that you should be so well-practiced that you will not need these notes when you give the presentation. All speakers at science conferences that I’ve attended do not read their scripts during their presentations.

But, there is one situation where you should probably script your talk. If your talk is important, and I mean EXTREMELY important (invited presentation at an important function, college graduation ceremony, etc.), then you may consider using your scripted notes. But, you should be so well-rehearsed that it doesn’t appear that you are reading your notes.

Even one of the masters of presentations, Apple’s Steve Jobs, used a script when he gave his famous 2005 Stanford graduation speech. He doesn’t look up very often, but his talk is full of the enthusiasm, passion, and eloquence that is typical Jobs.

I have given a scripted talk twice—each time it was a talk that was so important that I wanted very precise word choice. The first was my presentation to honor Fred Sanders at the symposium in his honor in 2004. This event was particularly special because I was paying tribute to the M.I.T. professor who introduced me to the American Meteorological Society, weather forecasting, and skepticism toward numerical weather prediction models. All the effort was worth it. Of all the conference presentations I have ever given, it was the one that I put the most effort into preparing and rehearsing.

All the effort was worth it. The research on cold-frontal structure in preparation for that presentation was some of the most satisfying and productive of my career. I had been wanting to study prefrontal troughs and wind shift lines for over ten years; eventually, two journal articles and two book chapters resulted. I was thrilled to be presenting this new research to my largest audience ever (standing room only). Significantly, the humorous parts of the talk hit their mark, eliciting the right amount of laughter from the audience at the appropriate times.

The second time was when I was selected by the Rector of the University of Helsinki to give the selected talk at the Inauguration ceremony from among a dozen other newly inaugurated professors. In both of these instances, the importance of the event meant that I wanted my word choice perfect. And that required that I script my talk in its entirety. However, in each case, I rehearsed the talk until I was comfortable with the text. Not that I memorized it, but I was intimately familiar with my own words. So, during the actual presentations, I had the script in front of me, and I referred to it from time to time, but mostly the script was just for my recollection.

In this way, my presentation is like anchors who read the news from their notes and the teleprompter. They are so well rehearsed you cannot tell that they are reading a script.

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