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April 2024
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Reading a Prepared Text

How to slow down and avoid the deadly sing-song effect.

By Bill Brown, DTM

Illustration of a toolbox

We're often trained to memorize our speeches, or at least parts of them. There are times, however, when we find that we are reading parts, or even all, of our speeches.

Maybe you are reading a lengthy quotation from a book to support your speech’s main point. Maybe you are a minister reading a section of Scripture during a sermon. Or maybe you have been asked to introduce the main speaker at a major event and are handed an introduction to read verbatim.

It may seem counterintuitive, but reading a text is one of the hardest ways to speak. Yes, it makes it easier for you to get the words out. But if you want it to sound real, if you want it to sound alive, if you want it to sound like you really believe it, you have to put some effort into it. Make it sound like you normally talk.  

All too often I hear speakers going along just fine, but then, when they start reading a segment, they sound flat. They might as well say, “blah, blah, blah.” As a professional narrator, I know how easily that can happen.

The energy that you put into a speech and the way that you emphasize your words are important elements in speaking. They help keep your audience engaged. Those qualities are easier to maintain when you are speaking in your own words—words that reflect your passion for your topic. But you can lose that energy when you read a text if you treat all words alike, without any vocal variety.

It may seem counterintuitive, but reading a text is one of the hardest ways to speak.

While I have done some commercials, including one for Del Taco, most of my projects have been marketing and training videos. (Did you catch my video on that tortilla making machine— or the training on how to make dental caps? Yawn …) My job is to make boring subjects sound interesting. My narration experience has had a major impact on how I speak and read today.

I have my own recording studio in my home, so many of my clients send me a script and ask me to, “record it, edit it and send the final file.” That has given me the opportunity to agonize over retake after retake until I get a reading that works. And that has taught me how to use my voice to captivate an audience and move them to action. When I hear a speaker reading a text in a blah, blah, blah manner, I realize the effect that that reading is having—or not having—on their audience.

Your objective, as a speaker reading someone else’s text, is to capture the intent of the author. You selected to read that text for a reason. It spoke to you and it illustrates your point. Make sure that your audience senses that, too. That is the big picture. Now let’s get into the details.

Tools of the Trade

When I am reading a text, I prepare it in a special way, and I mark it up—a lot.

1 Begin by printing out the text you will read, but do so in a larger font. Some experts suggest using Times Roman or a similar serif font style. I personally prefer Arial. Pick one that you find easy to read. Boost it to a 14 point size at a minimum, possibly 16. I usually use 14, because I want to minimize the number of times that a sentence wraps around to the next line. I use a line spacing of 1.15 or 1.5, but choose whichever works best for you. The purpose is to leave some space between the lines to allow for plenty of room to mark up the text without getting confused by markings from above and below.

2 Read through the text several times to understand it. Note the important words and phrases, and underline words or syllables that need emphasis.

3 If you want to pitch up on a word, put a line with an upward slope above the word. If you want to pitch down, draw a line with a downward slope.

4 If you want to add a short pause for clarity, insert a slash between the words that require the pause. If you want a longer pause, particularly for effect, use a double slash.

5 Any script will have words that cause you to goof up every time. When that happens to me, I circle that word. That way, when I am reading it, I see it coming and pay more attention to it.

Next let’s look at word groupings and technical terms—the two constructions that can be particularly problematic when you are reading a text.

Word Groupings

Word Groupings, at least as I am using the term, are words that need to be stated as, essentially, one term. For instance, the tagline of this magazine is “The Magazine for Communicators & Leaders.”  “Communicators & Leaders” is a group, so I put brackets around it. This has two benefits. First, I know to read it as one. Second, if there is a line wrap after “Communicators” I don’t say, “The Magazine for Communicators—pause—and Leaders.” That can ruin the effect. When I see the front part of a bracket, I know that there is more on the next line and that helps me to read it accordingly.

Technical Terms

Sometimes words in a particular industry or context take on a meaning special to that field. They become what are known as “technical terms.” And all too frequently they take on either a pronunciation of their own or are treated as one word.

Here’s an example from the world of Toastmasters. As I write this, it is speech contest season. In fact, I am assisting the contest chair at a division contest. Outside of Toastmasters we would pronounce that title Contest CHAIR—two words with the emphasis on the second word. When I begin my part in the division contest, however, I will use the Toastmasters pronunciation and pronounce it CONTESTChair—as one word, with an emphasis on the first syllable. 

While this may seem to be a minor offense, I watched a video from a company in a field in which I once worked. It referred to a manufacturing method known as “tape wrapping.” In that industry, we called it TAPEwrapping—again, pronounced as one word, with an emphasis on the first syllable. The video called it tape WRAPPING. That different pronunciation raised questions about the company’s knowledge of the method.

There are technical terms in your field, as well. Bracket them, so that you see them coming. And one more thought about markings:  Do them in pencil. You can see them better and you can change them, if necessary.

Finally, once you have your text prepared, deliver it with the same energy, pacing and vocal variety that you use in the rest of your speech. As I said in the beginning, make it sound like you normally talk. Record yourself as you practice. Ask yourself, “Did I lower my energy level on the reading?” “Does it have a sing-song sound to it?” “Did I quicken my pace?” We read at a faster pace than when we speak. If we speak the quotation at our reading pace, we will blitz through that segment and the audience may not get the full impact.

Effectively reading a text takes preparation, practice and time to master the skill. But it is a skill that can make a dramatic difference in the effect that your selected quotation has on your audience. That text had a strong effect on you. Make sure that it has that same effect on your audience.


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