Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!
Reading aloud in public is a distinct skill. It’s part of most religious ceremonies, can be needed in court, or in an educational setting – in class or Assembly. We have all seen it being done badly. Someone muttering inaudibly behind a lecturn is not doing any good for anyone – especially their audience. So how to do it right?
First let’s dispel the idea that the existence of a script means most of the work is done. It isn’t. If you have to read aloud in public you should prepare and rehearse exactly as you would for a speech you wrote yourself.
All the normal rules for public speaking apply: you need to connect to your audience, speak clearly and audibly, be interesting to listen to and speak well enough for your audience to understand and assimilate what you are saying.
The most common error is that the speaker talks to the page, not to the people listening. We don’t see the reader’s eyes and their voice is flat and monotonous. Zzzzz, we are gone.
To read aloud properly, you should look at the page briefly and scan ahead, then raise your eyes and look at the audience as you speak the words you just saw. The idea is that you’re telling the audience something, not proving that you can read.
Eye contact matters. Sweep through different parts of the audience. Look front, rear and at each side during the course of your reading – note down directions in the script to remind yourself to do this.
Make the most of the difference between reading and speaking: animate your voice and use variety in expression and tone, pitch and volume to bring your reading to life. A person reading silently to themselves cannot do this.
Take time to prepare what you have to read. Underline the keywords. Notice where you can vary the pace or the volume, and mark it in. Are there important words to emphasise? How will you do this – make them stronger? softer? slower? faster? Note that down. Where will you breathe? A well written script makes that easy for you, but you should know where the breaks in the phrases and the sentences are. Refill your lungs to speak confidently to the end of each section. Especially plan where you will pause. This creates dramatic effect, and lets the words sink in.
If you’re reading a text that your listeners are following it’s one of the few occasions when the audience will know when you make a mistake. So go through it a few times in advance and get your voice, lips, teeth and tongue used to what they have to do. Rehearse aloud so you are accustomed to pronouncing everything correctly. Check any unusual words in advance.
A lectern can be a protective barrier for a speaker, making them feel secure and safe. It’s also good for holding your notes, your water and your glasses. It adds dignity to a formal or religious occasion, so can be a great prop. But, like a suit jacket, it won’t look good if it doesn’t fit right. Don’t let the furniture compromise your work. Most lecturns have a pre-set microphone on them. If you are tall or short it won’t be at the right height – so adjust it. Never droop down or crane your neck – it looks awkward. If you are really short you may be invisible behind a big structure like a pulpit. Plan in advance and make sure there’s a stool or a stack of telephone books handy for you to stand on. Climb up gracefully!
I work a lot with young people, and am sorry that reading aloud in class is now regarded as old-fashioned. Kids who have experience at reading and speaking take an important first step in gaining confidence in oral expression. Using another’s words relieves them of the need to create their own, instead they can concentrate just on presenting. Reading aloud gives you a feel for the spoken word. You become used to more formal grammar and vocabulary, and get a chance to practice vocal pace, dramatic pause, and all the dynamic variations we use to make ourselves interesting to listen to.
Try it. Pick up a newspaper, magazine or novel – find someone to read a bit of it to. You’ll see instantly what the challenges are, and also the rewards. And when you next have to take the podium you will be better prepared.
More on this subject here.