Presentations with scripts. Good, bad or ugly?

I’m a member of an online support group, where there’s been a conversation recently about whether or not scripts are a good thing in presentations. Early opinion was divided – some said “scripts are a good thing in presentations” and there was the obviously opposite camp who said “scripts are bad thing”. At one point, there divide was pretty starkly between those who’d given lots of presentation and those who’d given fewer (or who weren’t “presenters” as such).

In short, the less experience presenting folks had, the more they thought a script would help. One of my fellow experts has already chipped in with a blog of his own (here).  (By the way, I should add that opinions changed over time as the issued of scripts-vs-presentations got chewed over.)

So let’s explore some of the reasons for not using scripts and the things you can do instead.

Learning a script for your presentation is too much like hard work

Shakespeare - presenters nightmare!There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but generally speaking people find it hard to learn swathes of text. I’ve tried. I know. I used to be an actor. I can still remember the hundreds of hours it took to memorise a script. A four minute soliloquy would fill me with dread. Presentations are more forgiving than Shakespeare, I know, but even so…

The thing is that most of us don’t make presentations all that often and the effort of learning a script is a lot of work – that’s time away from our jobs and away from our friends/family/loved ones. Unless using a script gives huge benefits, the ratio of effort to benefit for your presentation is unlikely to be worthwhile.

So that’s one vote for ditch the script. Presentations are means, not ends, and if you can achieve your end with less effort, why the hell wouldn’t you!?

You have no headspace left while you make a presentation

don't panic in your presentationThis one is a risk, rather than a certainty, but the chances are that you’re not going to have the time to learn you script to the completely robust level of a professional speaker. Professional presenters generally know something so well that they simply can’t get it wrong (side note: but not because they’ve learned a script).  ‘Normal’ people delivering a script have at least part of their head thinking of what they’re supposed to say next, trying to remember the presentation’s script.

That, in turn, means that your head is more full than it needs to be and you haven’t got enough ‘headspace’ (if you want a more scientific term, try ‘cognitive load’) to do things while you present… things like

  • looking carefully at the audience to make sure the understand
  • checking who’s not paying attention and flexing what you do to bring them back into the room
  • adapt what you’re saying to the way the audience is responding.

In other words, the script is using up your head, and therefore getting between your audience and your message.

Writing scripts isn’t like speaking

Writing scripts isn’t easy. If it was, we’d not need to pay script writers.

It takes a real skill and years of practice to write a script that sounds right when you say it out loud.  In other words, when you deliver your presentation scripts can make you feel unnatural to your audience. That’s because we use different parts of our brain when we write to when we speak – which means that written scripts use different language.

Let’s take a simple example – with my tongue in my cheek a bit. You might write the words “Commencement of the project was delayed by …” but when you speak you’d say something more like “We started the project late because…”. It makes a huge difference to the authenticity of your presentation!

Editor and proofreader Louise Harnby says

I spent years worrying about the point at which I’d fail during presentations. I’m not good at memorising lines, and even poorer at delivering them naturally. But the thing I worried about most was missing out one of the key learning points I’d promised to teach. Given that I was fluffing my scripts, it made sense to try a new way. I went scriptless. Did I stumble over a word here and there? Certainly. Was I TED Talk quality? Certainly not. Did I deliver every one of my key learning points without a hitch? I did! Plus, I enjoyed myself while I was presenting. And I think it showed because the feedback from my audience was amazing.

Scripts make you more likely to panic in your presentation

The thing about a script is that A is followed by B is followed by C is followed by D etc.  But what happens if you make a mistake and B goes wrong? Without B to lead into it, how can C happen?! Your world is over! Panic raises its head and your presentation falls apart. You’re only one step away from the collapse of civilisation and the zombie apocalypse! 🙂

I’ve seen it happen!  And very recently!

I was working with a proto-professional presenter for a competition and in the heats they missed a phrase from their script. Just one phrase. As a result, they stopped, got into a bit of a tizz, tried again… and again. You can see it now in your mind’s eye, can’t you?!  It was like watching a slow motion train crash, just knowing that they weren’t going to be able to recover easily.

Most people can recover, of course. They just jump to a different part of their script and start presenting from there, but the damage to their credibility and to their confidence is already done!

You can’t adapt your presentation if it’s scripted

A woman Bored by your presentation?Suppose your script talks about X, Y and Z in that order and for three minutes, four minutes and three minutes respectively. Then (despite not being able to concentrate because you’re too busy reciting a script (see above!)) you realise that the audience already knows lots about X but really, really wants to know more about Y. With a formal script you’re going to waste everyone’s time for three minutes. It’s not the end of the world, but it turns your audience off.

By the time you get to the interesting stuff (as far as your audience is concerned) at Y and Z, your presentation has already been filed under “boring”.

And it probably serves you right. 🙂

You could, of course, wizz through the unnecessary bits of the script, but that causes brain melt in most people – and in any case, it doesn’t magically give you more content in your script on Z!

So what next?

It’s all well and good me saying scripts aren’t always helpful but what should you do instead?  Wait, wait – that’s my next blog!  🙂  (Part two is now live here, with the gob-smackingly unoriginal name of “Presentations without scripts“)


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