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  • Writer's pictureNick Palliser

Script: The Saboteur of good presentations.

During the past 15 years helping clients present more effectively, whether for speeches, town halls, promotion panels or pitches, I would say the most common obstacle I face is getting them “off script”. That blasted script: the perennial safety net or comfort blanket which gives a false sense of security and yet is the most likely landmine in their presentation.

I want to outline my reasons for hating it so much and hopefully, give you a sense how to make use of it, then ditching it without so much as a glance in the rear-view mirror.

What is the problem with the “Script”.

First, let me ask a pretty fundamental question. Why do we communicate?

· A speech – to move, educate, amuse, engage and hope people leave having their outlook changed or broadened around a topic.

· A Town Hall – to inform, warn or inspire, to give a picture of what is happening and where we are going.

· A Promotion Panel – to tell the story of who we are and what we have achieved. To give a sense of what we can do and what we aspire to do. To connect as human beings.

· A Pitch - To make a client feel that they want to work with us. That we have the solution to their problems. That we get them and empathise. To tell a great story.

If you agree with the broad idea of the above, you will notice that these are aims that lie within the emotional sphere. We influence through emotional connection, not merely facts. Remember Mehrabian’s Communication Model? He divides how we are affected in communication into three fields: content, what we see and what we hear. He worked out that the content only accounts for 7% of what influences us. The remaining 93% split between what we see (body language) and how we are vocalising the content. In other words, how does the speaker make us feel?

“Hang on,” I hear some of you protest, “when I have learned and practiced my speech, I can give it all the qualities of body language and vocal expressiveness to satisfy a dozen Mehrabians.” Maybe, but I can honestly say that in 15 years of working with several hundred clients, only a handful were truly able to pull it off. Part of that was because they had a natural ability to write a script that sounded natural and the talent to perform it with confidence and fluency.

So, what is the intrinsic problem with a script. First, it is written English as opposed to spoken English. They are two distinctly different languages with different rhythms, constructions, and inflections. We write in longer sentences, with commas and clauses whereas we rarely speak like that. I have written several sentences in this piece which, although they read fluently, when I read them out loud, sound strange, formal and stiff. Having spent half of my adult life working as an actor, I can assure you that a badly written script is nearly impossible to make sound credible and even harder to memorise. However, a well written script flows off the tongue. Writing good dialogue (spoken English) is an amazing skill given to few.

Secondly, a script locks you in. When it comes to delivering your content in front of an audience, the security blanket turns into the object of fear and stress. “What if I forget my script” or “What if they interrupt me”. Again, as an ex-actor I can testify that there is little more terrifying than standing in front of several hundred expectant people and forgetting your lines. A level of internal panic sets in that can make anyone beg the ground to open up and swallow them. That is why so few people in the work setting accept to deliver their content without a copy of the script in front of them. “Just a safety net.”

You could ask what is wrong with that? Well that leads me onto my third reason to hate scripts. This is one is much more subtle but, in my mind, crucial: it distances you from your audience.

When we memorise content, our “mind’s eye” is focusing on our script, not on our interlocutor. We are not sensitive to emotional signals and messages as we would be if we were speaking from the heart: we are concentrating on delivering the message no more, no less.

How can we replace the “Script”.

I would like to describe a very common situation in my practice. I would be supporting a team pitching for an important piece of work. Most of them will have written a fairly detailed script describing their role and aims as part of the pitch which they are in the process of memorising. As part of the rehearsal process, they are given feedback from various people and they must change their script, not just once but many times over the preparation period. As we get closer to the real thing, anxiety creeps in as the script is now a jumble of original thought clumsily interspersed with the feedback. Unsurprisingly, it sounds dreadful. Gone is the vital what they want to say and focus is solely on how they will say it.

In order to reverse this situation, I have to coach this individual to get rid of the words, and re-focus on what they need to tell us. Ironically, this usually entails what they do professionally, day in, day out, yet suddenly they feel incapable of telling the story. Their mind is temporarily held captive by the words, structure and phrases they have memorised.

They can be coaxed into telling the story to a friend or partner in an informal setting. After all, it is what they do every day. Eventually, they begin to find their own words again as we work on a structure that feels organic and easy to tell. In other words: a story.

In conclusion

When we prepare content that will have to be spoken, it is absolutely natural to write things down, edit, re-jig, try again and so on. The danger point is when it starts to take shape and we begin to memorise it. At that moment, we must re-dissect it into thoughts and points of interest and practice telling the story from those bullet points. It will be different every time which is good.

We must never forget that good communication is all about how the other person feels about what we say. The hard facts can always be put in a document, how you feel about them cannot.

You might have a story worth a million pounds, but if the other party doesn’t engage with it, believe it, cares about it, it is worth nothing.

Copyright Nick Palliser 2022

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