The Script as Friend and Foe

Articles in this magazine have made comprehensive arguments for the virtues of speaking without a script. This may be the ultimate aim of most Toastmasters, but we should also consider that notes do have their place. And it may be a surprise to learn that their place is larger than many members think.

I joined my first Toastmasters club, the Dublin Club in Dublin, Ireland, 30 years ago and I can’t remember when I last used notes or read from a script in giving a speech, except when required to do so by the manual. What I can remember, vividly, is how I clung to my scripts like a drowning man clutching a plank during my early attempts at speaking in the club.

For most of us, our early days as speakers were fraught with terror. First, the prospect of simply standing up in a room full of people, with every eye on me, was enough to make my heart race. Then the task of actually giving a speech to all those people – sitting there, staring at me – would freeze my blood. There was the dry mouth, the sweaty palms, the feeling that my shirt collar was getting tighter. But worst of all, there was the fear that I would go completely blank in the middle of a presentation.

The life saver in all this was the script. It carried the assurance that if my mind did go blank – even if I lost the thread of what I was saying in the middle of a sentence – help was always at hand. And steadily, encouraged by my fellow members, I graduated from a full script to summary notes, to headlines, to single cue words, to no more paper.

It’s not always that simple, however. I have visited some clubs and heard gung-ho evaluators pressing people barely past their Ice Breaker project to go for it and make their next speech without notes. This, I feel, is like asking somebody who has learned just enough about swimming to stay afloat, to dive into the open sea off the highest board on the tower in a storm. The result can be a disastrous blow to a fragile confidence. But, used sensibly, scripts can help turn a dog paddler into a long-distance swimmer.

There is a catch, though. It is all too easy to regard a script as just a convenient crutch for beginners. In reality, the script is the end product of the creative process that leads to a great speech. Whether that script finishes up on the lectern in front of the speaker or at home in the desk at the time of delivery, is irrelevant. It’s the tool that lets the speaker put together a well-crafted, well-developed and well-rehearsed speech. Also, without the script, it would not be possible to get the timing right.

What’s more, there are times when even the experienced speaker will have to read from a script. For example, it’s not uncommon for a professional speaker to be handed a speech that was to have been delivered by a colleague at a conference and asked, “Would you do it for him? He’s ill.”

An experienced speaker knows to value and develop the specific skills that can help her survive this kind of challenge. The chief hazards include the difficulty of maintaining eye contact and in finding your place after looking up to make eye contact. How to overcome this?

I was lucky enough to once see a master in action. The late actor and film director John Huston gave the readings from the Bible at a Christmas carol service in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. His eye contact throughout was impeccable, his voice mellow and beautifully clear. To the casual onlooker he appeared to be just standing there, speaking freely to the congregation. He hardly seemed to be aware of the Bible open before him on the lectern. How did he do it? Here are four tips for success:

 Ensure that the lectern is high enough so you can stand straight and make eye contact with the audience without having to bow your head to read.

2. Work on your speed-reading skills, at least enough to take in a sentence at a glance. Then you can make use of an unconscious habit we all have when we speak. When talking, most people don’t fix their audience with an unblinking stare throughout. We make frequent mini-pauses during which we glance away from the person – and often we glance down. These are natural breaks in private conversation often seen as cues to other people to reply, if they wish. In public speaking, these brief pauses allow time for a very quick glance at the page – hence, the speed reading. Since the head is not bowed when you glance down, there is no sense of lost eye contact and the voice is not affected. Caution: Don’t let your concentration lapse, at all, or you will lose your place and break the rhythm of your speech.

3. Adjust your body language. It will, of course, be somewhat constrained by your need to stay behind the lectern (or hold a script). But this is not a big problem. You can use facial expressions and hand gestures where appropriate.

4. Put more expression into your voice. Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech is every bit as moving listening to it with your eyes closed as watching it on television. You should always try to paint vivid pictures with words. In Ireland, the seanachai (pronounced “shan-a-kee”), a traditional storyteller, can create whole worlds while sitting in a chair and chatting conversationally with his audience. (In passing: I find the practice, common among business gurus, of pacing up and down like a caged tiger while speaking, an annoying distraction.)

Aim for True Excellence
Considering all of the above, I would say that, paradoxically, speaking effectively from a script is actually more difficult, and demands more skills (and better use of them), than speaking from memory or ad libbing. And ideally, we should think of aiming for excellence in all three areas.

Last year I gave a speech to my current Toastmasters group, the Engineers Club in Dublin, advocating the use of notes. They hadn’t heard an argument like this before and had not thought about presentations in that way.

In speaking, I actually worked from notes, using them as a prop to demonstrate my points about the techniques. My evaluator that evening, veteran Toastmaster Liam Browne, was impressed. He later commented, “I have seen Ice Breaker speakers perform without notes of any kind and give a reasonable performance. I have also recently seen an Ice Breaker where the speaker used a script and gave a much better performance.”

Whether or not notes belong in a speech performance depends both on the nature of the speech and the temperament of the performer. Browne advises getting rid of your dependence on scripts gradually: steadily shrinking it from full scripts to longer notes, to shorter notes, to working without notes. This is better than leaping from one extreme to the other.

It’s fair to expect a Toastmaster who is moving into the advanced manuals to start “flying solo.” Just remember, the Toastmasters program does occasionally require the presenter to read a speech. Browne notes, “This [working effectively from a script] is a high-definition skill requiring practice, practice, practice, and calling for poise and assurance, pace variation, pause, emphasis, eye contact, facial expression, ‘reading ahead’ and delivering with your eyes off-script. Reading from a script is a skill essential to politicians and top business executives and should not be dismissed as only a crutch for new and timid speakers.”

So why not spark a discussion in your club on the value of notes and scripts? This may be a good article to read aloud to your fellow Toastmasters. Just be sure to follow the four tips for success when you do!

 Bill Matthews is a psychologist and a member of the Engineers Club in Dublin, Ireland. He can be contacted at