To script or not to script.

I attended the TEDSummit 2016 conference in Banff, Alberta, Canada, listening to an array of provocative speakers for four days. The proliferation of compelling ideas, experiences, data, story and more is still processing in my overstuffed brain.


While I work through the ideas presented, It should come to no surprise that I have an observation about speakers’ style and delivery. My conclusion: I am more convinced that scripting a talk that will ultimately be memorized and recited is far more risky than learning to deliver and embody it.

Let me explain.

While TEDs’ post-production editing superpowers will erase out most of the awkward moments before the talks get posted on the internet, one thing was painfully clear from being in the live audience. Those that scripted their talks word-for-word and attempted to memorize them word-for-word stood out from those that didn’t.

It’s not to say that there weren’t some speakers scripted and memorized their talks successfully. I fully admit I wouldn’t know if the flowing, natural, authentic talks were memorized word-for-word.

How do you spot the difference?  It looks like this.

The speaker starts strong, and flows along nicely with a healthy cadence to their stories, data, slides, transitions. They may be breathing well with good pausing, inflection and melody.

And then out of no where, they aren’t. Sort of like a car running out of gas in the dessert. There’s few places to turn for help. In this case, only their memory, inhibited by anxiety and 1000 people staring at you.

Everything stops. Memory has to re-boot because until that moment, they have been in the present. The pregnant pause may be for 3 seconds or it might be for 10. Some are smart and walk to get a drink. Some pull out a note. Some stand and stare at their shoes hoping they remembered to write out their outline on their shoelaces.

In Chris Anderson’s Book, TED’s Guide to Public speaking, he explains the divide between speaker preparation styles: to script or not to script. Not scripting is a process that involves outlines, talking it out, more outlines, talking it out, recording, editing, recording, and so on.  Scripting is about getting every word down and revising every word again and again – and then beginning to memorize every word.

For years we’ve told this to the speakers we coach: if you need to script, then script. But immediately narrow the script (or brain dump) into an outline. That’s when the TALK development begins. From there, you can tell stories, woven together with your plum line, supported by cues from slides and maybe only word-for-word memorize the very first and last lines. This is supported by repeated recordings, breathing and somatic exercises (getting into your body), with an overwhelming dose of practice.

As John McWhorter reminded us in his 2013 TED talk, we may speak like we write – but we rarely if ever write like we speak.

When speakers ONLY script, there is an important math equation at play that prevents them from being successful. Most simply, their sentences are too long, may involve multiple images and no clearcut path for a breath.

We write in 12-14-18 or more word sentences. We speak in 6-8-10 word sentences. If you don’t believe this, watch President Obama give ANY speech. Likewise, James Veitch, because he is a comedian, combines words in quick images “Are you ordering the bouncy house or am I?” — which “land” well with audiences.  And his comedic timing is a lesson for everyone to pause and breathe more.

Juan Enqriquez, as he was describing if a brain of a mouse could be transplanted last week in his talk, moved quickly from one important image (cutting off mice heads) to another (transplanting them to other mice) to a third (getting us to ask if the brain would be wiped out or if the memory would transfer). He was telling a flowing story with a logic sequence of points. He didn’t have to memorize each word, it and if he did, he got to the “other side” by gracefully embodying his content inside his conversational delivery.

These moments are really so fleeting during four days of talks it’s unfair to harp on them.  But as Isaac Ledsky reminded us, visually processing messages gets in the way often of hearing them clearly. When we watch a speaker struggle, if only for a moment and even if we are empathetic and supportive of them (as our TEDSummit audience was, with people actually clapping to show support during these pauses), our attention is quickly distracted from their idea and wondering how much they really prepared.

This doesn’t mean that the “outliners” don’t have awkward pausing. But since their delivery is often already conversational and naturally flowing, an interruption in the memorized statement does not pose such a difficult recovery.

Everyone has a different preparation pathway. My forever takeaway is know, practice and love what yours is – whether it is to script, or not to script.