Dr. Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser, was in Chicago earlier this month speaking to the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. Her presentation, which was televised nationally on C-Span, discussed this administration’s efforts to combat terrorism. The speech was persuasive in nature: she was proactively defending the government’s policies and actions in the Middle East at a very controversial time.

Dr. Rice spoke to a large audience for about twenty minutes, using a carefully written speech placed on the lectern in front of her, followed by 20 minutes of questions. Her presentation, while articulate, demonstrates an issue that we discuss often in our workshops: the challenge of delivering a written speech. If you watch her speech you will notice, as we did, that her presentation changed dramatically when she strayed from her notes, as she did during the Q&A session. In short, her written notes held her back, and when she strayed from them she became a much better speaker.

Dr. Rice faced some hard questions at that luncheon, addressing complex topics such as the Israeli conflict with Palestine, concerns about Afghanistan, CIA leaks, and U.S. policy in Iraq. She used no notes to respond to these questions. But in virtually every situation, she was more effective as a speaker than during the first 20 minutes when she focused on reading her written notes.

Here are some of our observations of Dr. Rice’s speech, both before and after.

Before (Using her written notes):

  • She began with good eye contact, she smiled, seemed relaxed, and shared a thought on the Cubs’ playoff run. (She didn’t seem to be using her notes here.)
  • She makes points by changing her intonation slightly, slowing down and repeating them for emphasis. Her pacing is slow and deliberate. Her language and tone, especially at the beginning, are powerful and persuasive.
  • By following her written notes, she has difficulty with eye contact. She uses gestures infrequently, keeps her hands on her notes most of the time.
  • As the prepared speech goes on, her gestures decrease and the volume level of her voice becomes constant. The speech starts to feel bogged down.
  • Her head increasingly bobs up and down, from notes to audience, which is the only movement we see from her for an extended period. It becomes distracting to the audience, further detracting from her message.

As you can tell, when using her prepared notes, Dr. Rice started to lose our attention and lose effectiveness as a speaker. Then came the Q&A session, where she was to face hard questions from her audience. But read on to see how our observations changed when she started answering questions.

After (answering audience questions):

  • Eye contact is greatly improved. She seems much more connected with her audience.
  • Volume changes are much more noticeable. She turns it both up and down.
  • Pacing picks up–she speaks more quickly. She seems more comfortable speaking at this pace. Her tone is more conversational.
  • She begins using bigger, more emphatic gestures with her hands. She’s making her points–important points–more powerfully and with more conviction. She seems more passionate about what she says.
  • We notice a few more non-words (“umm,” for example), but not enough to be too distracting. She’s telling stories and personal experiences, sharing her expertise and ideas, and coming off much more confidently in the process. She has earned her audience’s full attention.

The changes in Dr. Rice’s delivery style were evident the moment she left her notes behind. The first question she faced could have been a disaster: the questioner declared that Saddam Hussein had done nothing to his people that Israel’s Ariel Sharon hadn’t done to Palestinians, and asked why the U.S. hadn’t treated Sharon the same way it had treated Hussein. It was clearly an unfriendly question, yet Rice took a brief moment to compose herself while thanking him for the question, then launched into a complex discussion of the issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She was passionate, articulate and concise, and the audience–for the first time–burst into spontaneous applause after her response. She used no notes, but was nevertheless well prepared to address the topic. She looked more like a leader and an expert on national security than at any other time during her speech.

Many speakers believe that they will deliver a better speech if they have lengthy, extensive notes. But in our experience, and certainly in Dr. Rice’s speech, those notes–particularly when written word-for-word– keep the speaker from doing his or her best work. Rice became a more exciting speaker when she handled questions. Her message was not quite as controlled, but she was able to convey her abilities, her beliefs and her passion much more effectively.

The majority of our clients are most effective as speakers when they’re being themselves, telling stories, and talking about topics that they know about. That’s a huge part of what we try to communicate in our seminars.