Presentation Tips: Writing for the Ear

Novelist Stephen King was recently interviewed in The New York Times about his decades-long obsession with audiobooks. Although he is known for the written word, King credited audio with sharpening his prose, improving the pacing of his narratives, and helping him ward off lazy phrases and clichés.

“If you listen to something on audio, every flaw in a writer’s work, the repetitions of words and the clumsy phrases, they all stand out,” said King. “As a writer, I say to myself, how will that sound?”

And that’s exactly the question presenters should ask themselves as they script their speech or presentation. In fact, scripting a presentation has gotten a bad – and unfair – rap. When we coach business executives, physicians, and scientists for major presentations and tell them they need to write a script, what we usually hear back is “I don’t write my presentations; it sounds more natural when I just speak to my slides.” The reality is that often “speaking to slides” sounds disjointed and rambling.

While scripting CAN sound stilted, good scripting should sound completely natural because it is written in the presenter’s authentic “voice.” In addition, because scripting takes time presenters are more likely to ask themselves important questions before they start writing. Below are some presentation tips to help you script a presentation that sounds like you, is effective, and keeps your audience interested.

  1. Have a Clear Understanding of What You Are Trying to Communicate and Why. That means you have to identify a specific goal for your presentation. That can be as simple as asking yourself, “What do I want my audience to remember or do with the information I’m giving them?” Most communication is designed to be persuasive, so if you’re trying to persuade them of something, use the goal as a guidepost for your scripting and make sure your words all tie back to that goal. Above all, be honest with your goal. No one is ever going to see it except for you, but if you’re not clear on what you’re really trying to achieve, it won’t be clear to your audience either.

  2. Think about Your Audience. Now that you’ve identified what you’re trying to achieve with your presentation, it’s time to understand your audience and what will resonate with them. Again, before you start writing, ask yourself questions. “How much does my audience know about this subject?” “What do they need to hear?” “What do they want to hear? What will move them?” You can’t persuade someone of something if you’re not on the same wavelength as they are.

  3. Brainstorm for Bright Ideas. Here’s your chance to get creative BEFORE a presentation instead of DURING one. Write out or type ideas that pop into your head about the subject. They can be catchy one-liners, compelling facts, or anecdotes. You’re not trying to organize anything yet. Instead, just give your mind permission to download information on the topic. Then write it down so you don’t forget it and so you can more easily assemble it later.

  4. Prioritize Your Messages. As the French philosopher Voltaire said, “The secret of being a bore is to tell everything.” Decades of research show that most people don’t accurately remember more than three things from a presentation. From your brainstorm list, choose the three main messages that you believe are most compelling to build your presentation.

  5. Structure Your Messages in a Pyramid Format. Build three message pyramids. Start each one with a headline or a catchy one-liner to engage your audience. Prove that headline by prioritizing a few facts from your brainstorm sheet. Then, and here’s where the persuasion often comes in, use a visualization to help your audience “see” and truly “get” what you’re talking about. If you don’t make it real for them, your audience won’t understand or agree with your point. A visualization can be a short story, a metaphor, or an example. The key is to make it relevant, succinct, and interesting.

  6. Write for the Ear, Not the Eye. Your audience only has one chance to hear and understand what you say. There is no “rewind” in a live presentation. To help them easily process your information here are a few tips. Keep sentences short. Break one long sentence into two. Write in active, not passive language. That means the noun comes before the verb. For example, “The dog bit the man.” Not “The man was bitten by the dog.”

  7. Practice Aloud and Edit. One of the best ways to keep your script crisp is to read it aloud and listen for what is not essential. Then cut what isn’t needed to achieve your goal or engage your audience. People remember very little so just tell them what you really want them to remember. That way you will have more control over what messages your audience walks away with.

Back to Stephen King. You can’t hide bad writing from the ear. How something sounds is the ultimate test of whether your message is clear and interesting, and whether your overall presentation is well written.

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