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Should I Memorise or Read My Presentation Content?

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The content was really great and the way the words were put together was quite clever.  Obviously a tremendous amount of work had gone into this piece.  The speaker had a previous professional journalistic background and the careful selection of just the right vocabulary and the descriptive flourishes were excellent.  The speech was a dud.
 
It failed miserably because it was a written speech, read to us.  He could have emailed it to all of us and we could have read it for ourselves.  If we read it for ourselves and struggled with some of the big clever journo style words, we could still break out our dictionaries and plumb the meaning.
 
The next speaker just spoke.  He wasn’t such a fluent talker, sometimes stumbling over some of his words, occasionally stuttering, but he had everyone’s attention because he was authentic.  He wasn’t reading to us, he was looking at us and connecting with us.  He had a slide deck, but he just used this as his navigation, to help draw us into his story.
 
The issue here is how should we reproduce the content we have designed.  Do we have to remember it exactly, memorise it so we can be faithful to our speech design and message?  Speakers get very hung up on their content.  They feel that they have to deliver the perfect coalition of words to get their message across.  
 
Our first speaker couldn’t memorise his speech because it was too long. That is the case for all of us – usually the sheer effort required is not worth it.  His speech content was far superior in the construction of the content, compared to the second speaker.  But he failed as a communicator, because he read it to us.  All of his effort went into the crafting the script and nothing into the delivery.
 
If it is a very short speech, you can try and memorise it, but these are usually very special occasions.  Japan is a very formal country, so if you are asked to speak at a friend or subordinate’s wedding here, then there are established protocols and sentences you must use in Japanese.  If you greet the Emperor of Japan, then there are set things you must say in Japanese, the specific content will depend on the occasion.  Mick Jagger told me not to drop names, but I have done both and I did memorise the content.  These were short pieces, so I could can manage them without getting myself into trouble.
 
I did get myself into trouble though, trying to memorise a longer speech.  I was the Dean of the Kansai Consular Corps at the time and was asked to speak at the farewell party for China’s Consul General Li, before he left Osaka for America.  I had studied Chinese at University and although pretty rusty, thought I could pull off a short speech.  Because I am not a fluent speaker of Chinese, having lived here in Japan for thirty years, I had to memorise the content.  The plan was to memorise the first part in Chinese and then switch to Japanese, which is much easier for me.  
As the Australian Consul General in Osaka at that time, I thought this would be a pretty deft piece of national branding, emphasising Australia’s commitment to Asia.  It seemed like a good idea at the time!
 
This is where memorisation can get us into trouble, and this includes trying to do it in your native tongue.  Well I wasn’t doing this in English, so it was a high risk strategy.  I was doing fine actually, until I got to a quote from the famous poem by Mao Zedong called "Reascending Jinggangshan".  All of the Chinese guests in the audience immediately recognised it and started applauding enthusistically.  At this juncture I made a fatal error.  
 
After having an internal debate with myself, I decided to wait for the applause to die down and then resume.  Because it was a memorised speech and not natural conversation, it was a forced exercise to remember the words.  Suddenly my mind went completely blank, a total whiteout.  
 
I could not recall what came next.  If you are ever up on a big stage, facing thousands of expectant faces and your mind goes blank, you will find that a solitary microphone stand is not much cover behind which to hide your embarrassment.  After about 20 seconds of stone motherless silence, which felt like an eternity, I was somehow miraculously able to pick up the next part and complete the speech, before switching into Japanese.  Probably wiser to avoid memorising your speech.
 
Please don’t read it to us either, if you can avoid it.  If it is a highly technical speech, something with gargantuan legal implications if you get it wrong, a life or death statement to the media or on behalf of your absent big boss, then you may have no choice. If so, then please use as much eye contact with your audience as possible.  You can study the text, such that you really know the content.   You can read the first part of the sentence, then voice the last section while looking at your audience and still remain perfectly faithful to the sacred text.
 
You can read the words and add in gestures, to emphasis the message.  You can stand straight and tall and project confidence, reliability, credibility and trust rather than hunching down over the microphone stand.  You can have pauses, to allow the audience to digest the key points.  You can hit key words for emphasis and can use voice modulation to bring the text alive.  Do not have your head down, eyes glued to the text and cut yourself off from your audience.  
 
Even better, read your audience not your text.  Observe if they are buying what you are saying, see if they are understanding the point.  You don’t have to memorise your talk or read it to us or read the slides to us.  You can have speaking points and talk to those points. 
 
For the vast majority of speeches, a conversational tone of talking to key points will work extremely well.  If it is severely formal and you have either memorise it or read it, well go ahead.  However if you don’t have that type of caveat, then look at us, talk to us and engage with us.  We will forgive any sins of grammar, pronunciation or lack of speaking fluency in the delivery.  
 
We will connect with you and we will receive your message and we will regard you highly as an authentic person who spoke from their heart.  And we will remember you in a positive vein.
 
 
 
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