I still remember those terrible days when my history teacher would have the class read aloud from the text book, each student one paragraph.
I was a pretty awful at reading out loud, so I counted the kids ahead of me. I determined I’d be reading paragraph 13, and started practicing.
When it was my turn, I blasted through my paragraph so quickly that I mispronounced words left and right and sounded like the disclaimers at the end of a car commercial. Worst of all, I was actually supposed to read paragraph 12. (Turns out I was lousy at reading and math.)
But it turned into a valuable lesson. When you’re reading a text in public—whether it’s jotted notes or a full-blown speech—it’s easy to mispronounce words and fumble phrases. You feel stupid and your audience is confused. Here are some tips to help you prepare.
1. Avoid using words you might misread during your talk when you glance at your notes.
If you wrote, “It assures our success” on a note card for a presentation you were going to give, it would be easy to mistakenly read it as “assumes” if you glanced only briefly at it during the talk – especially if you were talking fast.
If you’re going to refer to written notes during a live presentation, think through the words you’re writing down. Ask yourself if you can imagine misreading any of those words when the crowd is in front of you (“darling” for “daring,” for example). Cut out words that could easily be mistaken for others.
2. Watch out for words you regularly stumble over.
A confession: I almost always mispronounce “distribute” and its variations–distributing, distribution, distributor, etc. I’ll often place the emphasis on the wrong syllable and say “dis-tributors” or “distrib-utors.” So I never use any variation of distribute in my public talks. It’s one less thing to worry about.
During a live presentation, you get just one chance to deliver each line, each word, flawlessly. If you stumble over or mispronounce a word, it can severely disrupt your flow. If it happens more than a few times, it can also make both you and your audience uncomfortable. So monitor yourself for particular words that trip you up–your own versions of “distribute”–and make a point of keeping those words out of your talks.
It’s also a good idea not to use long, complex words. All of us occasionally trip over words like “inexplicable” or “extemporaneously.” So try not to include words like these in your presentations.
3. Avoid words or phrases that might confuse your audience.
Former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan, in her book On Speaking Well, tells an interesting story about a foreign policy speech she wrote for President Reagan. After reviewing the draft, Reagan’s chief of staff handed it back to Noonan and told her to change the phrase “muscular altruism.” When Noonan asked why, he said, “It sounds like a disease.”
What the chief of staff realized was that when people hear the word muscular, they think “dystrophy.” Add to that the fact that the second word in Noonan’s phrase is a word most people don’t know and which ends in “ism,” and you can see where the whole phrase could confuse and even frighten the public.
When crafting your presentation, think through any words or phrases that your audience might misconstrue or even hear incorrectly (because they’re so used to hearing those words in different contexts). Then find different words to make the same points.
One final thought for anyone reading this who works for the Department of Education: Please do whatever you can to stop that horrible read-aloud practice that fills school kids with terror!