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Speakers’ prepared remarks becoming rare in an era of informality

John Seelmeyer

The executive who confidently strides to the speaker’s podium carrying a folder containing his carefully prepared remarks is becoming about as rare as a fellow wearing a necktie in a Reno office on Friday afternoon.

Instead, executives these days are far more likely to carry an index card that lists four or five key items that they need to hit during their remarks.

“I rarely write full-blown speeches anymore,” says Julie Ardito, principal in the Reno public relations firm that carries her name. “Speeches often come off as canned, over-rehearsed and static.”

And audiences want something that isn’t canned.

Speaking invitations these days are more likely to seek an informal talk as opposed a big set-piece address, says Jane Tors, who serves as a special assistant for media relations to the president of the University of Nevada, Reno.

“There is an increasing and positive trend toward audience engagement. It’s no longer about talking ‘to’ your audience but rather talking ‘with’ your audience,” says Tors.

New developments in media and technology, too, play a role.

Todd Felts, an assistant professor in the Donald W. Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, says speechwriting has changed dramatically since his earlier career as a speechwriter for former North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt.

For one, speakers know they need to somehow cut through the thick fog of messages that stream from the media every hour.

If nothing else, Felts says, that places a premium on strong visuals and strong storytelling from platform speakers.

Another consideration in an age of new media: For better or worse, a speech may take on a life of its own in channels such as YouTube.

“The speech may not end when you say,’Thank you for the opportunity,'” Felts says.

And for better or for worse, the widespread use of PowerPoint to provide an outline for speakers and their audience alike reduces the need for speakers to rely on word-for-word prepared speeches, Tors says.

One upshot may be a subtle change in the skills required for top executives, Ardito says.

It’s less important these days for top executives to create a commanding performance with a prepared speech, she says, and more important that their stage presence reflects their personality.

The trend toward informality doesn’t mean, however, that executives are any less prepared when they stride across the platform.

“Key messages are important, and we provide all of our clients with help in constructing messaging and developing talking points,” says Mike Draper, a public affairs account supervisor at R&R Partners in Reno.

Preparation of formal speeches is far more likely, Draper says, when clients who are addressing some sort of government-related issue or a significant crisis.

Sparks Mayor Geno Martini, for instance, routinely relies on prepared remarks for big events such as this week’s State of the City address, says city spokesman Adam Mayberry.

Gov. Brian Sandoval usually carries prepared remarks with him when he steps behind the podium, says his press secretary, Mary-Sarah Kinner.

“For a formal speech, the governor almost always uses prepared text because he believes it shows the audience respect,” Kinner says.

On the other hand, the mere fact that the governor is carrying a prepared text with him to the podium doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be reading it to his audience.

Sandoval often is fiddling with his speeches, making handwritten additions, moments before he starts speaking. That allows his remarks to fit closely with the moment, the speaking environment and the crowd, Kinner says.

Sometimes, he strays quite a bit farther from the pages of his speech, says Kinner.

“The governor departs about half the time from prepared remarks, including occasionally completely ad-libbing an entire speech,” she says.