Presentation Skills: 3 Tips for How to Use a Script Effectively

One of the most common questions I get when coaching people for presentations is whether or not to use a script. Scripts can be useful tools when preparing yourself to speak in front of an audience, but I’ve seen too many people use them to their disadvantage. Today I want to share three tips for how to use a script effectively.

Bringing in a second voice on this topic, I spoke with Sheron Tabois, leadership consultant specializing in professional development, influential communication, and personal image. Sheron and I both serve as presentation skills trainers at Lighthouse Communications and coach professionals on presentation skills. You can find part one of my interview with Sheron here.

Tip #1: Script First, Deck Second

“One slide, one idea.” This is advice that most communication coaches give when it comes to creating decks. I couldn’t agree more. If you’re trying to communicate too much, you communicate nothing. You have to edit and direct your audience to the key message you want to share. But too often professionals and founders come to me with decks that are cluttered with text and images. When I ask them, “What’s the key message behind this slide?” they often can’t give me a succinct answer. This is the problem that arises when we build our deck before we clarify our message with a script.

Your script is how you simplify and clarify your ideas. Only after this critical thinking stage can you put creative (fonts, colors, images) into the mix. I know, it’s FUN building a deck! But you have to exercise discipline in your thinking before you get to play with fonts and colors. Here’s how you can do that.

Ask yourself these questions before sitting down to write your script:

What’s the controlling idea (key message) for this presentation? 

  • This should be a concise message (+- 12 words), a complete sentence, and interesting.

How will I engage the audience around my topic at the beginning of my presentation?

  • The easiest way to do this is by starting with a question.

What’s the ONE THING I want my audience to remember?

  • One thing because one thing is all they will remember.

How will I organize my content so that it’s easily digestible?

  • I like to separate my content into different buckets (often three) because it helps the listener organize what I’m saying in their mind while I’m talking.

Once you have these questions answered, you can start sketching out how you’ll organize your content in a script. After editing and refining your script, then you can sit down and put together your deck. You’ll find it’s a lot easier and faster to design a deck when your script is guiding you.

Tip #2: Use a script to keep your thoughts organized—but don’t read it!

Less is more in a script. It’s tempting to want to write out every word you’re going to say, but that can make us rigid and robotic when presenting. You want to use a script as a guide to keep you on track with your content so you don’t veer too far away from your key message. Here’s how you can do that.

I’ve found the best strategy for me is to write my key message down, maybe with one bullet that elaborates on the key message. Then when presenting I’ll share a story or fact/statistic that comes to mind in the moment to bring it alive. Tabois agrees, “I will put a script nearby when I’m presenting just to keep me on track because I don’t want to go too far down sharing examples and stories.”

Every audience will inspire something new from you: a different story, a specific example, a fresh statistic. It’s important to allow for that spontaneity when presenting so you don’t end up reading your script (they know when you’re reading!) and putting your audience to sleep.

When presenting, we’re aiming for something that sounds conversational, not robotic. “I definitely feel like I’m ready to go live when I’ve worked through the script enough times aloud,” says Tabois. “I’m not practicing in my head, but I’m literally saying it aloud.” This is key.

Most people practice their talk or presentation without vocalizing it. This causes problems because you want to build muscle-memory with your content. That means actually saying it out loud, not just reading it when rehearsing. Tabois adds, “After I’ve done enough rehearsing, I can free myself up to change exactly how I tell that story each time so it’s not like a line by line verbatim” reading from the script.

how to use a script

Tip #3: Highlight where in your script you’re going to engage your audience

Generally, the purpose of having a script is so that you’ll know what to say. But another way to think about a script is to use it to help you engage your audience. Remember: a presentation is not a monologue. A presentation is a two-way conversation between you and your audience. That means you have to build in moments where you’re purposefully engaging them as you present your content. Here’s one tip that will help you use your script to be sure that you’re engaging your audience.

After building your script, go in and literally highlight audience engagement moments to be sure you have enough of them (so it’s not just you talking all the time). Audience engagement moments are things like asking the audience a question, running a poll, or having them do an exercise. If you don’t have any highlights in your script, you know you’ll want to add some in.

According to the Harvard Business Review, best practice for virtual presentations is to engage the audience every five minutes so they don’t retreat into that “alluring observer role”. Give your audience opportunities to be participants in your content by building in ways for them to engage.

Watch the full interview with Sheron Tabois here .

How does a lack of confidence show up in the way you communicate? To overcome the inevitable challenges in leadership, a coach can be an invaluable tool.

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