Time to Tear up the Script?

The opposite of spontaneity is rigidity. It’s how most of us live our lives – through a combination of rationality, hard work and a devotion to format. There is nothing wrong with rigidity in terms of getting the job done, but it is hardly a formula to get to get you noticed.

If you are in the business of making speeches, the rigid path can be detrimental to your effectiveness as a presenter and this rigidity is embodied in the tool so many speakers have come to rely on: the autocue. It is the ultimate safety device that provides the speaker with both the words and the all-important eye contact with their audience but what it doesn’t provide is the flexibility to inject a bit of spark into a speech.

In order to better communicate to an audience we should be looking to connect on different levels, earn empathy and strike a chord. That’s why loading up a pre-written script on an autocue can be nothing but rigid. It takes into account none of the mitigating factors of the day – the audience, the venue, the weather, a happening in the news, a development in the industry – which could provide an extra level to the speech on the day.

Politicians Who Autocue

We’ve all become accustomed to Donald Trump lashing out in public. More often than not it’s personal but at a rally in North Carolina, in the run up to the Presidential election, his ire turned to the malfunctioning autocue itself. “You know what, I like it better without the teleprompter!” he told the crowd, projecting an image of a politician unscripted (although reports suggest that at least some of his more populist moments are in fact pre-written lines).

Barack Obama used an autocue too. Although he was scripted through most of his best-known speeches, he worked hard to give the impression that he wasn’t. One of the tricks he used to achieve this was to have two autocues set up so that he could seamlessly sweep his gaze across an audience while staying on message. However, President Obama, like his Democrat predecessor, President Clinton, was also able to pull a wisecrack out of the bag when necessary, in turn neutralising a potentially sticky moment and endearing himself to the crowd.

Boris Johnson is also aware of the power of spontaneity, although at times it has also been his Achilles heel. Early in his career, through his appearances on the TV panel show, Have I Got News For You, he grasped that playing the buffoon with his comments could cut through the stuffiness of politician talk and reach out to a wider audience. His new Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg is also expert at less scripted moments. His preferred use of notes rather than the autocue at the 2019 Conservative party conference allowed him to shine with a sense of cheeky spontaneity as he compared Jeremy Corbyn to Georgie Porgie from the children’s nursery rhyme (“when the boys came out to play, Jeremy Corbyn ran away“).

Should I use an Autocue?

For many, it’s a no brainer. The autocue is the equivalent of hitching a ride in a driverless car. Its reliable format offers great incentives which include minimising your speech preparation time and reducing stress. However, this steady handling leaves no room for even minor spontaneity and what the autocue brings in reliability, it crushes in personality and charisma.

So maybe it’s time to go out on a limb and hang up the autocue? However, don’t fall into the trap of confusing spontaneity with ‘winging it’. Ironically spontaneity will require more in the form of preparation, namely in the form of practice. A well practised speech will allow you to take advantage of flow, so that even if you miss out a couple of points, your audience is unlikely to see the seams. Reading from short notes, even as short as key prompt words on a series of cards, will help your brain to access those sections of speeches you’ve rehearsed.

While the initial fear of performing without ‘safety ropes’ is inevitable, once your speech begins a curious thing will happen. That (well prepared speech) will allow you the time to think, the freedom to express and the courage to loosen up a little and just go with the flow. If you can overcome the fear stage, I can guarantee that you and your audience will find the experience much more enjoyable for casting off the shackles of rigidity.