This is the first of a two-part series on how to approach sight-reading (for actors) or reading from your notes in a presentation (for public speakers). For both performers and presenters, this is a key skill. There is nothing worse than getting lost in your script and losing your connection to the audience. So here are some tips for how to stay present with your audience, even as you have to sometimes reference the written words in front of you. For the sake of simplicity, from here on out I’m going to refer to this as sight-reading, even if as a public speaker you have seen your notes before.
The most important tip to sight-reading in a way that the audience feels included is to make sure that you ‘land’ the end of each phrase on your audience. What I mean by that is that when you reach the last words in a phrase, look up from your notes/script, make eye contact or look in the direction of someone in the audience (or your scene partner if you have one), and speak those words to the audience. You can denote phrases by looking at where the punctuation is in the script, or thinking about where the punctuation would be in your phrasing of your thoughts and ideas. This way, you are looking at the audience throughout as you speak— giving them the sense that this is for them, and that it’s important that they hear it. If you look back at your notes before you’ve finished the phrase, it looks like you’re not concerned with how the audience feels or thinks about what you’re saying.
If you are using a script, you can actually mark each piece of punctuation and practice looking up and landing the last few words before. If you are going off of more informal notes, practice speaking your notes out loud as much as possible, and begin to get a feel for where you tend to naturally phrase your thoughts. Be diligent about ending your phrases on your audience, rather than ending your phrases by looking at your notes to try to see what the next thing is you want to say before you’re done with the thought you’re in.
You can try this now— pick up a newspaper, or a magazine article, or a book, a script, or even your notes from your presentation. If it’s an actual piece of text, mark where all the punctuation is. Then practice reading it aloud and looking up at a target at the end of each phrase. It will probably feel strange at first, but once you start to get the hang of it on your own, try it with a friend and get their feedback. I imagine you will find that when you are regularly able to check in with your audience, you will feel more connected to them and to what you’re trying to convey to them.
Let us know how it goes!