Select the right words. Say them well.

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Most anyone who stands before an audience must decide, “Do I script this thing word-for-word or do I go with an outline and hope I can follow it?” With the ever-growing prominence of reality TV, You Tube and other supposedly unrehearsed elements in the entertainment world, a script is feeling more like a boat anchor these days.

I was reminded of this dilemma while reading Dick Cavett’s new, often funny book, Talk Show. Cavett describes what it was like to watch 2008 Presidential candidate John McCain read speeches from a teleprompter. “Something in him tightens. His voice even goes up several notes, and he seems bogus in a way he never does in other settings. Like an actor stuck with a part he’s not comfortable in.”

Does this sound like you? Or perhaps your boss? Does all of the personality suddenly drain out of the words? The usually bright leader suddenly becomes a mannequin? You are not alone, but you do need to fix the problem.

First, you have to love the words — the message has to ring true to you. Many a leader has fallen short trying to sell a product they didn’t believe in. (Generally I also find good readers make better speakers. The love of words or the turn of the phrase and the connection between words and what they can mean for an audience brings out the best in a person giving even a rather mundane talk.)

Second, go with bullet points instead of a full script whenever possible. You will make it your own, in the moment, and the message will flow much more comfortably. If you know the material, the word choice will come to you just as it would in conversation and the transition points will seem much more natural as you follow your simple road map.

Finally, practice is still hugely important with a bullet point talk. Many people think, “Hey, I have it right here, it’ll be no problem.” Don’t be fooled into thinking you can just “wing it.” Have a plan for how you will start — perhaps even having that opening memorized word-for-word and have a plan for the end as well.

By the way, there are some tricks to reading a teleprompter naturally, but I will save that until next month!

Indulge me for a quick post script. Just last week I had a chance to briefly re-connect with Senator McCain. He is still energized and full-of-life, an amazing specimen at age 74 and someone I’ve observed closely for more than 20 years.