Dear Mr Bay

Here’s how to make it through a speech without a teleprompter

January 8, 2014
January 8, 2014

Even a famous Hollywood director can flub his lines when he has no clue what he’s supposed to say.

But Michael Bay, who walked off the stage of the Consumer Electronics show this week after aborting his Samsung presentation, is not alone. Many leaders, including President Obama, rely on devices when making speeches, in part, because it allows for greater eye contact with the audience. However, speech coaches discourage their use because they can freeze or fail. “They think it will save their butt, and they [devices] will not,” said Mikki Williams who runs a speakers school for executives. Other experts say audiences can tell when a speaker is reading and it diminishes the rapport.

What works instead? Williams teaches executives to develop key words for the main sections of their talk and memorize them. Each one should trigger a story you want to share or a point you want to make. “You do have to remember your opening and your closing,” she said, comparing a great speaker to a great dancer like Fred Astaire. “You’re looking at the finished product, not all the practice and the lessons.”

Some people spend days or even weeks preparing for speech or presentation.

George Aye, founder of the Greater Good Studio, which uses design methods to solve social problems, says he practiced his TED talk 50 times before giving it to TedXDePaulU in Chicago. “Eighteen minutes is a surprisingly long time to speak when it’s from memory!” he wrote in a post on preparing for a TED Talk. “Just like any good stand-up comic knows, making it look like you’re telling a joke for the first time takes practicing it hundreds of times in advance.”

TED did away with the teleprompter a few years ago because “it will cause people to disengage from the audience,” said Kelly Stoetzel TED content director. Many TED speakers now use note cards for their talks, even if they stay in their pocket the entire time, and some just develop an outline or key bullet points, she told Quartz.

Bay’s initial stumble is fairly common, and Stoetzel suggests people “make an advance plan” for severe nerves, losing their train of thought, or tech foibles. “Have a plan B, C and D,” she said.

Or brush up your improv skills. During a TED talk by scientist Carolyn Porco, she showed high-resolution images of one of Saturn’s moons when suddenly the image froze and her photos stopped appearing. Porco said: “Oh look, it’s frozen just like Enceladus’ [one of Saturn's moons] surface.” And the audience responded with a hearty laugh.  (That doesn’t show up in Porco’s video TED talk; those stumbles and stops are edited out, she said.)

Those moments can create an extra bond or “human moment” between the speaker and the audience, Stoetzel said.

Just don’t tell that to Michael Bay or Samsung.

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