Many speakers I’ve worked with struggle to be authentic because they are working from a word-for-word script. They are giving a big keynote address, the stakes are high, and they don’t want to miss anything. They may even have a comms team helping them create the presentation. In the end, they have a polished script, and they put a huge amount of time and energy into rehearsing and memorizing it.
But when they stand up to deliver it, they don’t come across as present or authentic. Instead, they seem “canned.” They are too focused on the words, and the words may not even be their own. They may “look good” but they don’t connect.
Worse, they don’t find presenting very rewarding because they don’t fully inhabit their presentation, and they don’t get to experience the joy and spontaneity that’s possible on stage. The whole process becomes an exercise in putting on a show, rather than an exciting moment of connecting with the audience authentically.
So, what’s a speaker to do? The challenge is especially tough for speakers with a lifetime habit of preparing word-for-word scripts. But there are ways to get beyond this. Here are some of my favorite tips.
Change your preparation process
Instead of assuming that you must come up with a script for your presentation, work from slides and a list of bullet points. If you like, memorize one or two sentences that you will say, verbatim, for each slide. That can help anchor you. But don’t script the rest of the information you want to convey for each slide.
Instead, rehearse a lot, out loud and without a script. The goal is not for your presentation to be exactly the same each time, but you do want to be confident about presenting the key ideas. You may find that, while you say something a bit different in each run-through, over time you’ll begin to be more and more clear on exactly what you want to say. In a sense, you’ll develop a rough script in your head, but never on paper. You’ll internalize the key messages that are most important to say, simply by speaking them out loud in rehearsal.
By leaving out the step of writing a script, you’ll also avoid the downside of a written script: the written word is very different from the spoken word, which is why scripted speakers often end up sounding canned.
Prepare a script, but then move away from it
If you absolutely must go through the stage of writing out your whole talk verbatim, then another option is to go through that step, then evolve away from the script. You can write out the script and memorize it, but then distill it into talking points or bullets. Working from those, allow yourself more and more freedom to be spontaneous as you rehearse.
Or, you can write the script, but before making an effort to memorize anything, convert it into bullet points and focus your rehearsal effort on those. That way you skip the step of memorization altogether.
Either way, the crucial thing is to get away from being fully scripted.
Take the leap
Fundamentally, being authentic requires some risk. This is true in daily life, and it’s true in public speaking. If you are used to speaking from a script, there’s an internal shift you’ll need to make if you’re going to leave it behind. You need to be willing to let go in the moment, to not worry about getting every word perfect or the same each time. You need to trust in yourself and in your preparation. To some extent, it also involves trusting your audience to forgive little glitches which aren’t really important anyway. And it involves getting out of your head and fully engaging with the audience, being yourself in the present moment.
All that can be scary! But if you’ve prepared, if you know the ideas of your presentation and you’ve rehearsed well, it’s worth taking the plunge. You can be very, very well prepared for a presentation without ever having a script. And even if you end up leaving out or changing some content when you deliver your talk, it will be worth it in order to be fully present and authentic with your audience.
Take the leap in rehearsal, first
One more thing—you can make the shift to being more spontaneous during your rehearsal time. You don’t have to wait to be on the stage. Once you know the big pieces of your talk, try a run-through without notes and without worrying about your script. What if you were giving this talk as a conversation with some dear friends or family members? Let go of the crutch and be present and more spontaneous, to see how you sound. Rehearse “without a net” several times. Put your focus on the audience, on being yourself, on being present, and talking about things you care about.
If you have a lifetime of scripted presentations behind you, it can take some practice and some effort to make the shift. But taking the risk of leaving the script behind will let you be more spontaneous, passionate, and connect with the audience—authentically—like never before.
For more on this topic, see the Harvard Business Review article, “How to Become an Authentic Speaker.” If the idea of going off-script still makes you nervous, see the practical tips in HBR’s “How to Calm Your Nerves Before a Big Presentation.”