I have written before about how thinking on your feet will trip you up. At first glance, this post’s title might seem a different way of saying the same thing. But the techniques of public speaking can be subtle, and this case is no different.
To show you why, I am going to write a bit about the perils of improvisation, about why scripts are a defence, but not the only one, against those dangers … and then why, if you choose a scripted approach, it is best to stay true to it.
The truth is that thinking on your feet is almost always a bad idea: if you go on stage without any preparation at all, you’ll come unstuck. Speaking in public is a formal activity and, if you’re to make a success of a presentation, then you need some sense of what you are saying and where you are going with it.
A script, though, is not necessarily the only – or sometimes even the best – way of achieving this. Actors train for years to make written scripts sound natural; not all of us have the time to attend RADA. That can mean that reading from a script renders a speaker robotic or stilted. In the case of some kinds of presentation, and some kinds of speaker, bullet points or notes may be a better approach.
That brings us back to questions of “authenticity”. Speaking without a script might make you seem more “real” – although it might also make you sound a bit under-prepared. You may ramble. Even worse, you may forget a key passage – as Labour leader Ed Miliband did when he forgot to mention the national deficit in a key conference address. In that bid to be natural, you risk losing your message. Winston Churchill sometimes appeared to talk off the cuff – but even he in fact had notes in his pocket for safety’s sake!
A script ensures you know what to say – and the form of words to say it in. This can be so important to striking the right tone. Likewise, the confidence that certainty brings you will probably help you feel more secure in speaking, which will in turn make you a better presenter. That in turn will help your audience engage with and trust in you more readily.
Indeed, I show people how to have a script and at the same time think on their feet and go away from it to come back again. This is particularly useful when taking questions or delivering a speech that is the summary of a day. Audience interaction can be so important – and knowing your speech well enough to step away from it for a moment is crucial to responding to your crowd effectively.
Most people who aren’t already amazing speakers will benefit from having more guidance on stage than a few brief bullet points. Think of your script as a tool, not your master: know the risks of straying from it, but only so you can counter them when you do.