Write Your Speech Out Word-for-Word – The Case for Manuscript Speaking

(a couple of posts about communication issues today. Here’s the first).

If you read many articles about different approaches to take for speeches and presentations, you find a lot of people in favor of not using a manuscript.

But… maybe you should.

Here's a page of a manuscript with President Reagan's edits
Here’s a page of a manuscript with President Reagan’s edits

Here’s my thinking. First, quick: name the greatest speeches you know of. Pick your favorite: The Gettysburg Address; Kennedy’s Inaugural; I Have a Dream… Reagan’s speech after the Challenger explosion. They were all scripted. If you carefully watch I Have a Dream, Dr. King reads from a manuscript until he gets to the I Have a Dream portion (which, though appearing “off the cuff,” had actually been written for an earlier speech).

Here’s what might happen when you don’t write out a speech in full. You might ramble; you might go off subject; you might “skip” sentences, and lose your audience in the process.

To write a speech in full, and then to read it aloud (a number of times!), lets you know if you succeeded in creating a message with effective “flow.” This is what I mean:

I am saying this sentence now.
Now, this sentence is the sentence that should follow the sentence that I just said before this one.
Now, this sentence is the logical next sentence.

Each sentence builds on the prior sentence, and it all “flows” together.

A number of years ago, my colleague Karl Krayer told me I was weak on transitions. He was right about that. After a while, I finally got what he meant (I can be pretty slow to learn), and now I pay attention to my transitions.

You might ask, “Randy, do you write your speeches and presentations out word for word?” No… I speak very often. But I do use extensive notes – much more than just bullet points/talking points.! And, I am quite mindful about issues of flow.

And, I listen to student speeches. Speech teachers generally teach students not to speak from manuscripts. And, yes, a manuscript can really negatively effect eye contact. (The key is practice, practice, practice)…

But I’m always amazed at some “common wisdom.” It appears to be “common wisdom” to teach against the use of manuscripts. And yet, when we show exemplar speeches, they are practically all manuscripted speeches. Kind of a disconnect, don’t you think?

And, let’s be honest – I’ve heard some nearly incoherent student speeches because the students did not write them out in full.

Incoherence is not good when speaking…

Surely, it is not a bad idea to write out a speech in full. Reagan did it; Hillary Clinton does it; every President speaks from manuscripts (yes, they do use teleprompters – that helps).

But, any negatives in using a manuscript can be outweighed significantly by the positives. A manuscript helps you say:

what you intend to say,
all that you intend to say,
only what you intend to say,
and nothing that you don’t intend to say.

That sounds like a pretty good idea to me.

Years ago (in my preaching years), I got to know J. Daniel Baumann. He was a Pastor, and a professor of preaching. And he wrote a terrific book called An Introduction to Contemporary Preaching (now out of print). I asked him if he thought a preacher should write out sermons in full manuscript form. He said yes – for the first ten years. After that, he said, you won’t have to. You will have developed the discipline of choosing the right words, putting them in the right order…

I did not fully follow his advice. But I did a fair number of times – and I especially did in some “big” speaking assignments. Manuscripting helped me a great deal, I think…

Now, feel free to reject this advice.   But, if you do, ask yourself:

Do you ever say anything you wish you had not said?
Do you ever leave key thoughts out?
Do you ever not quite make sense – are you skipping needed transitions?

Manuscripting can definitely help.

I spend part of my time writing speeches for others. I write them in full. I do my best to put them in “their words,” certainly with their stories, and their tone, and their personality. But, they are full manuscripts. Bullet points/talking points don’t quite accomplish the same thing.

So, if you have a speech to give (especially an important one), write it out in full.

Then, refine it. Write it for the ear. It’s not an essay – it’s a speech.

Use a lot of punctuation to remind yourself to pause, and verbally punch key words and phrases. It doesn’t have to get an A for proper sentence structure in English class. But it has to flow well, and not ramble, and make sense.

Practice the speech over and over and over again – so that you know the speech, and you don’t have to “look down the entire time” at your manuscript.

And, if it is written word-for-word, as you practice your speech, you will know exactly how long your speech is. Not an unimportant consideration!

But, I think you will have more complete, more effective presentations, if you write them carefully, word-for-word, before you present them.

That’s what I think…


(for our next “common sense” discussion, maybe we ought to tackle this. Many speech teachers teach students to speak from 3×5 cards. Quick, name the last time you saw a great speech delivered from 3×5 cards. You remember President Reagan holding his 3×5 cards, don’t you? Thought not!)

5 thoughts on “Write Your Speech Out Word-for-Word – The Case for Manuscript Speaking

  1. I think you are right. I have been speaking for a number of years to workshops, conferences and AIOP held functions. Initially I was unable to speak ‘off the cuff’, so wrote meaningful manuscripts to keep me on track. These speeches were well researched,contained references to great speeches such as the Nelson Mandela piece, which I feel adds to the calibre of the presentation, and also means that I was able to cover the material I was asked to present on. I have had very positive feedback on my material, so I feel that is proof of the success of using manuscripts.

    Now I am able to be more spontaneous, but it is still valuable to have quotes and references to hand.

  2. In my classes, I only teach extemporaneous speaking. I require one outline card (5×7) and a series of support cards (5×7) with sources on top that contain material such as quotes, stats, etc. Any speeches that I believe are written out, and/or read, memorized, or recited are automatic failures. I do not pass speeches that speakers do not deliver in the extemporaneous style, which calls for an emphasis on ideas (what you say) and not on exact, pre-planned words (how you say it). This comes from Toastmasters International, the largest speaking society in the world. Therefore, I do not penalize speakers for filler words (“uh,” “you know,” “like”) unless there are 20 of them in three minutes. That is the way we talk to each other in a conversational style, and that is what we should do in a speech. I do not teach the old-fashioned method of orations, addresses, and formality. I teach the updated method of informality and spontaneity, but the speech is still planned and organized. I prohibit the use of podiums unless the speaker is ADA certified. This is the modern and most used style of delivery in all venues, particularly in business. And, yes, I have seen many speakers use cards, and in business, I often see the company logo on the reverse side. In fact, when Randy Mayeux was the communication consultant for a political campaign, that candidate had his logo on the reverse side of his cards when he spoke.

  3. I have not seen all of them of course, but I have not seen a TED talk that I believe was written out and read. There may be some, but I haven’t seen one.

  4. Karl, a couple of responses…

    I was making a case for writing full manuscripts. Speakers are different from one another — and speech teachers are different. This were just my thoughts..

    But, a clarification, and a thought or two. You are correct that I had cards made for one of the political candidates that I coached and wrote speeches for. They were 5×8 (with their “logo”). But, in fact, printed on the cards were full manuscripts of their (relatively short) campaign speeches (which I wrote, with them).

    I do not know about all TED speakers. But I was asked to coach two TEDx speakers in the past, and both of them wrote their talks out in a full manuscript. They did not read their manuscripts on stage — but they wrote them in full, and practiced and rehearsed until the point that there were “memorized,” yet delivered in a way that seemed “natural.”

    But, mainly, I wrote this post to make the case the careful word choice in advance of speaking is a real plus. Manuscripting can definitely help with this.

    Of course, you can take a different approach — in your own speaking, and with the people you teach and coach…

    And I admit that I seldom fully manuscript — I simply give too many different presentation. But, in the past, on the “especially” important, I wrote full manuscripts… And that discipline helped me, and still helps me…

  5. […] Work from a script: Consultant Randy Mayeux notes that The Gettysburg Address, John Kennedy’s Inaugural speech, and Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream spellbinder were all scripted. He recommends speaking from a manuscript —writing the presentation out word for word and going over it a number of times— to prevent rambling and make sure your ideas flow smoothly. (Source: First Friday Book Synopsis) […]

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