Next time you’re giving a speech or presentation, don’t worry about reciting what you’ve prepared word for word. Instead, use the knowledge you have about your topic to speak to your audience with passion and authority.
Recently CNN posted an online story about nine CNN journalists who were willing to talk about the most embarrassing, highly public mistakes they had made before they climbed the broadcasting ladder to CNN status. The article carried the whimsical title, “Epic Fail: Career Mistakes We Made (and ended up at CNN).”
One CNN staffer, anchor Brooke Baldwin, used a brief video message to describe her biggest TV blooper, and to draw from her calamity a lesson about how to speak. Before she came to CNN in 2008—where she now anchors two hours of mid-afternoon news—she served an apprenticeship in smaller markets, including Charlottesville, Virginia.
As Baldwin remembered, once in Charlottesville she experienced a “deer in the headlights” moment on camera. She was standing outside a jail, dozens of people were shouting at her, and she was going through the final steps of memorizing what she was going to report. Then when the camera started to roll, her mind went blank. In all the commotion, she forgot everything she had meticulously scripted. Red-faced, she stared silently into the camera. She assumed that she earned a few seconds on a highlight edition of worst bloopers of the year.
Yet in this article she used what she had learned, to advise iReporters–ordinary citizens who submit brief reports for CNN’s consideration. She recommended that whether they were calling in, submitting a video, or using Skype, they should “be conversational.” Brooke advised iReporters to refrain from “spitting out everything you have memorized when you describe the scene or the pictures you are submitting.” Exact wording and perfect diction are far are less important than “the passion we will hear in your voice.”
Change the scenario. Imagine that you are going to speak to an audience directly, not through the media. Possibly your seventh grade teacher taught you to write your material, memorize it, and strive to repeat it verbatim. Maybe that method carried some validity decades ago, but today’s audiences neither expect nor want recitations. They prefer to hear what Baldwin termed “the passion in your voice,” as you share a personal story, describe the value of your product or service, explain to department heads how your company’s restructuring will benefit every constituency, sell a selection committee on hiring you, or teach in the classroom.
A word of caution: Neither Brooke Baldwin nor I would advocate spontaneous, off the cuff remarks to an audience of any size or through any medium. We are recommending informed conversation. Your research, initial organization, revisions, and audience analysis are just as thorough as they would be for a scripted speech. However, when the time arrives to speak, you inject that vital passion into your voice by speaking from the overflow of the material you have mastered—with the same energetic conversational tone you would use in talking about last weekend’s football game you watched.
Getting back to the CNN article, the opening statement admits that speaking mistakes are painful and embarrassing. The good news: As Brooke Baldwin said, we’ll reduce our red-faced failures dramatically when we stop memorizing and start sharing our message through a conversational, one-to-one approach.