Should you use a script on a webinar or webcast?
I get asked my opinion on this question all the time, so I might as well write it down for easy reference.
As a webinar moderator, have a script handy for your opening and closing remarks. It helps you find the shortest, most compact way to give the essential instructions, introductions, and closing statements to the audience so you can get out of the way and let the speakers deliver value. Nobody likes to hear a moderator droning on. If you are also running production activities such as starting a recording, monitoring audience questions, or dealing with audio issues, you really don’t want to be thinking about what to say while juggling those duties… The distraction is obvious to an audience.
As a presenter in a live slide-based webinar, you also should write down an opening and closing paragraph. It helps you start and end strong, with a clear message and a confident, polished delivery as the first and last things the audience hears. These impressions go a long way towards solidifying the impressions they will remember of you.
The rest of your talk should be unscripted. Working off a script for 30, 40, or more minutes is a great way to lull yourself into a sense of boredom with your own talk. You find yourself speaking in a monotone and projecting a sound of disinterested reading, rather than lively conversation with your listeners. Instead of a script, jot down some bullet points on your printout of your slides (you DO always print a copy of your slides, right?). Use large type to quickly remind you of your key points for each slide. Or you can write an opening sentence for each slide that helps you set up the topic point and then expand from there.
If you are appearing on camera in a live webcast, a script is almost always a bad idea. Reading off the paper, turning pages, and eliminating eye contact undermines your connection with your audience and reduces their perception of you as a subject matter expert and authority.
Now, watch me turn this advice 180 degrees!
If you are creating a recording from scratch (a presentation that is never given live, but is designed purely for on-demand access), SCRIPT EVERYTHING.
Audience attention span and focus is automatically less when watching a recording. Tolerance for little vocal imperfections is also less than for a live presentation. You need to condense your talking points, knowing exactly what you are going to say and how you will say it. Your goal is to give the key information points quickly and succinctly.
If you aren’t on camera, your best production quality will come from having someone listen with a copy of your script in front of them. As they notice little flubs or stutters or distracting background noises, have them highlight those lines. Then you go back and re-record the problem spots. A good post-production worker can edit in your retakes so you sound flawless through the entire presentation.
If you are going to record yourself on camera, you will need to use some form of teleprompter. I use a cheap and easy solution, employing a laptop computer running Script-Q. In this situation, you can’t simply re-record a few words when you make a mistake. You will need to reshoot an entire section of your talk so that the video insert can have a logical breakpoint. Video production work is much, much harder to do smoothly and professionally.
CAUTION: Scripting makes you lazy!
Whether you script just a paragraph or your entire presentation, your natural inclination will be that you don’t need to practice it, since you will have the words right there in front of you during the delivery. It actually takes a great deal of preparation and rehearsal to make a script sound natural. You need to know which words and phrases get emphasized. You need to know what comes next at all times. You need to become a voice actor, injecting life and enthusiasm into the words as you recite them. Your audience should never know that you are reading… They should simply think you are the most well-prepared extemporaneous speaker they have ever heard!
I recently worked on a webinar with a speaker who was engaging to talk to and listen to. Then he started reading his scripted content. BAM… Every bit of life and spontaneity went out of his voice. Once we got into live Q&A, things perked up again, as he went back to a natural conversational tone. This is a common pattern. To combat it, you need to practice your script out loud until it is completely familiar to you. The script becomes more of a reminder than a prompter during the presentation and you can talk in the same tone of voice that you use for normal speaking.
“But Ken, that’s a lot of extra work… I don’t have the time to write out everything or to rehearse it for the full length of the talk.”
Okay, that’s your decision. It really does take extra work and extra time. That is what separates the 10% of good, interesting, effective, and appreciated speakers from the 90% of the others we hear over and over again on webinars. You get to choose how you want to be perceived.