25

I have never written a verbatim script for a talk. I have at times written notes or outlines, but I never read from them when presenting (and rarely when practicing). With enough (weeks) of practice, I can give a pretty good talk. With less practice, I sometimes digress and sometimes omit an important detail. But what I am most interested in is improving my presentation by removing awkward pauses (e.g. while I remember what to say about a slide) and by using appropriate intonation, phrasing, and cadence.

Recently, a friend of mine who is a writing studies doctoral candidate suggested that the first step toward accomplishing these goals is to write out a script for each slide. This is a difficult task, but one that I plan to experiment with. I do not plan to actually read the script during the talk, but to memorize it while practicing.

My questions are:

  1. How common is it to write a script for a talk?
  2. How does having a script help?
  3. How early in the preparation should I have a "final" version?
  • 3
    What field do you work in? I think this is much more common in humanities and social sciences than in STEM fields. – JeffE Mar 6 '12 at 15:41
  • @JeffE I am in a STEM field – Abe Mar 7 '12 at 16:22
16

I think I have a similar process to the one described by Artem (apart from the popular talk, which I never had the opportunity to do). In any case, I never write a script. Actually, for my first talk in English, during my first year of PhD, I learned the talk by heart, which was terrible, and made me finish the talk in 12 minutes instead of the 20 minutes.

However, I try to carefully prepare my transitions, especially between different parts of the talk. I find it particularly annoying when a speaker finishes a part with a blank, moves to the next slide, and says something like "OK, next section now". Moreover, I usually include in a transition a brief summary of the key points of the previous section, and the motivation to go to the next section, which ensures that I don't forget any important point.

About how early should the preparation be ready, it depends on the kind of talks. For a 20/25 minutes conference talk presenting a paper, I usually already have a pretty clear idea of what I want to present and how to structure it (since I wrote the paper), so I start the slides about a week before the conference, have a decent draft 2 or 3 days before (i.e. the final number of slides, the correct titles), and the final version the day before. As Artem's said, after a while, you can project pretty accurately the duration of a talk from your slides, so there is no need to repeat to make sure you are in time.

For a 45/50 minutes seminar-kind talk, it's a bit trickier, because usually the audience is not the same as the one at a conference, and it's harder not to bore them. So I start preparing the slides about a month before, but only to get the outline, and I start working on the talking part, not so much the slides, to try to find nice ways to present the ideas (such as nice examples, nice analogies).

So, in summary, to answer your questions:

  1. It is not very common (I actually don't know anyone who does it).
  2. It can help if the speaker is very nervous, and tends to forget a lot of important things (which often disappears with experience).
  3. It depends on the experience, and the ability to evaluate your presentation. If you feel very confident, you can start preparing the presentation the night before. But in general, I'd say that something between a week before and the day before is good.

EDIT:

As aeismail mentioned, my answer is quite subjective, and just describe what works for me and for some people I know. However, just one point I would add, concerning the "awkward pauses": I think that the quality of my presentations has tremendously increased when I stopped preparing my presentation around my slides, but the other way around. So I dropped all sentences like "this slide presents ...", "on this slide, we have the definition ...", etc. Actually, I even try not to say the words that are on the slides. I don't know if my presentation are better for the audience, but at least, I feel much more comfortable with them.

  • 3
    I like your comment about the slides. I find that the best slides are the ones with no words. – Artem Kaznatcheev Mar 6 '12 at 16:14
  • +1 for some very interesting ideas: building the slides around the talk and focusing on transitions – Casebash Mar 30 '12 at 10:35
  • 3
    +1 for "the quality of my presentations has tremendously increased when I stopped preparing my presentation around my slides, but the other way around" – Dan C Jul 25 '12 at 5:49
22

I think a script is actually more harmful than good. It tends to produce very rigid talks, and it often forces you to concentrate on the script instead of the content and audience. Usually, you know what you are talking about well enough to not need a script, and just pointers. Below are the tricks I use for different kinds of talks.

Research talks

For technical talks on my research or guest lectures on topics I am intimately familiar with (these two have been the overwhelming majority of my talks), I do not make scripts or notes and just concentrate on making good slides. In the process of making slides, I produce an outline which I use to mentally check my timing. The day of the talk, I look through my slides carefully (hunting for typos and other minor mistakes), this reminds me of the exact details I was going to discuss. Since I tend to repeat similar talks, I have become very proficient at estimating my timing.

For some big conferences, I practice talks in my lab before heading to the conference. This greatly improves the talk, especially timing issues and comfort.

I find that this is easy to do because you are usually intimately familiar with your own research and unlikely to forget something. It also allows a relatively fluid and natural talk, and lets you answer questions during the talk without fear of losing your pace.

Usually, I have my final version the day before unless I rehearse in the lab.

Teaching talks

I have done a number of talks as reviews for large bodies of students (50 to 300) to prep them for exams, and smaller groups (20 to 30) during weekly tutorial sections. Here I was talking not about my research, but course material that I had taken years ago. The topics were physics/math and my style was one of interactive problem solving at the board of hand-picked problems that illustrated key concepts. To prepare I had to invest time to carefully come up with good questions and I quickly checked that I could solve the questions as I generated them.

I write down the questions one per page with a few bullet points of the main concept/technique I want to show in the question. However, I do not write down solutions and solve the questions on the spot at the board. This puts a certain amount of stress on me (especially if you are teaching first year engineers) but I find it produces much better pacing for the students (since I naturally slow down a little at the harder parts) and actually solving the questions as you present them instead of copying a solution from your notes to the board keeps you in the zone and actually reduces errors. Not having notes in your hand (except to write down the problem statement) also lets you worry about just two things: the board and the students.

The caveat is that you have to very comfortable with the material (but why are you teaching it if you are not?!) and you need to have the confidence to laugh at yourself and recover from occasional mistakes.

Usually, I have the final questions and plan a few days ahead of time. However, there is no 'final version' of the actual talk, since it depends completely on the audience.

Popular talks

My only opportunity to give a popular talk was at TEDx McGill 2009. This was incredibly different from other talks I am used to. Thankfully, all of the speakers were coached by the organizing committee ahead of time (including a full dry run through). The key message was to treat this not as a presentation, but as a performance. I did not prepare a script (and were were advised against preparing one), but I did make notes on cue-cards that I held during the performance. Except for the very beginning (where I was unusually nervous) I never looked at the cue cards, and mostly held them for comfort.

I had my final version about a week before the talk and my ready-for-dry-run version about two weeks before.

16

I think the most important factor to keep in mind is the personal comfort level of the speaker with respect to giving presentations. For some people—particularly people working in a non-native language—having a prepared script allows them to relax sufficiently and be able to get through the talk. For other people, having a prepared script acts more as an encumbrance than an aide. I've seen people rehearse talks to the point of practically being memorized—and then get completely flustered when they accidentally skip past a slide or are faced with a small technical glitch in the presentation itself.

So, I would disagree with Charles and Artem and say that you should find whichever method is most effective for you. Personally, I am not able to rehearse talks beyond going over what are the key points I want to address on a slide. If I go through a talk like that more than twice or thrice, I start getting "locked" into certain words and phrases, and then I start falling into the problems that the other posters mentioned regarding the pitfalls of a memorized talk. You may find a memorized speech is the most helpful possibility; if that's the case, then our opinions of what is the "best" approach don't really apply.

  • 3
    +1. The answer to this question is really simply "try a few methods, see what works for you, and practice that method a lot". – eykanal Mar 6 '12 at 13:59
  • 1
    +1 Very good point, it's true that different people can react differently, I'll update my answer accordingly. – user102 Mar 6 '12 at 15:23
13

Script only the introduction

I can only echo what Artem said about the disadvantages of a script.

That said, I often advise to write out the introduction of the talk beforehand in full detail. This way, you have a backup. So far, I have never ended up using the prepared introduction, I’ve always had at least slight variations. But if – for whatever reason – you get stuck, you can recourse to the prepared script. If nothing else, this is extremely comforting and reduces anxiety.

A talk should not feel like a performance

Of the talks that I’ve heard (instead of given), those that were obviously based on a script were among the worst. They were bad performances rather than good talks. A talk (in general) isn’t meant to be a performance – it’s meant to convey information; like you would do in a discussion with friends:

The “chat with friends” should be archetype after which to model a talk, not the “theatre performance”.1

Use cue cards

I sometimes digress and sometimes omit an important detail.

This can be helped by notes (cue cards). But you have to train yourself to look at these from time to time (I can never remember doing this). I usually end up plastering my slides with huge sticky notes that only show up on the presenter’s display (supported at least by Keynote). Not elegant but effective.

A word on slides

You said that you want to remove awkward pauses “… while [you] remember what to say about a slide …”.

This may be an indication that your talk needs revising for two reasons:

  1. If you cannot remember a detail, is it really important?
  2. You should have nothing to say “about a slide”. Slides are there to visually support your talk, not the other way round. If you don’t remember what to say about a slide, cut the slide. This sounds like a harsh judgement but it will improve the talk.

1 Except when it isn’t, of course. TED talks were mentioned. But even here, all the best talks feel like a friendly chat rather than a performance, even if they are in reality a well-rehearsed performance.

  • 2
    Your conflating reading verbatim from a script with a "performance". I agree with everything else you say though (just semantic difference on what a performance is, +1). – Andy W Mar 6 '12 at 13:01
  • @Andy Well, we agree that a talk is in a way always a performance. But for me at least, theatre performance implies acting out a script, and many people treat a talk (wrongfully) as such. – Konrad Rudolph Mar 6 '12 at 13:18
  • 3
    I agree with Andy: Every talk is a performance, but just as you suggest, a good performance doesn't look like a performance. Also, +1 for brutally cutting slides. Slides support the story, not the other way around. – JeffE Mar 6 '12 at 15:39
9

Scripting is great. Do it. Write out every single word. And then redraft and edit it, just as you would if it were a journal article ... except, remember that the audience is completely different. So redraft and edit it, with the real audience in mind. You are scripting a performance; so redraft and edit it as a script for a performance.

Then rehearse it. Over and over. Until you know about 70%+ off by heart (i.e. word-for-word); and you've got a really strong opening and really strong close, each of which you know 100% off by heart. With each run-through, you'll find yourself doing a bit more editing, re-ordering words, shuffling sentences.

Now put your script away, and do a couple of dress-rehearsal run-throughs without the script at all, so that your performance is close-ish to the script, but by now, it's getting a bit looser, more natural. So you can concentrate on timing, breathing, pitch variations, body language, and saving some resources for picking up continuous feedback from your audience.

And now you're ready to go!

YMMV. It works sometimes for me.

Try it out, at least once, and see if it works for you.

2

I also tend to write out notes, but at an early part of the preparation, I tend to write out something very much like a script. I use this to make sure I'm covering what needs covering, and cut down where I tend to ramble on. This also helps me determine if I'm going to fit inside the time budget, and if not, what to cut down on. A couple practice runs with the polished script and then I reduce it to a single page of notes.

One of my most memorable professors appeared much smarter because she eliminated all those "err" and "umm" from her speech. Instead of an "umm", she'd be silent. I'm not successful in replicating this as most of my coworkers take that pause to be a sign that I am done speaking, so they can now start their turn speaking.

2

I really dislike memorising anything word for word as most of that effort will only be useful only for a single occasion. That said - I have to admit that sometimes a talk is important enough to be worth that effort - especially if the talk is one the you will be giving on many occasions.

However, the disadvantage of memorising a talk is that it is hard to sound natural. It's difficult, but not impossible. Actors demonstrate this. Generally it is much better to just us a script as a guide. Practise individual chunks from memory a number of times and play around with the various ways of wording it. Instead of having to remember the exact words, you now only have to remember one out of a number of options. You will become much better at discussing the topic and your ability to improvise will improve.

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