The news that David Cameron is to start using Autocue for his speeches ('Cameron to be an Autocutie in bid to look less shifty on TV' - Evening Standard July 4) is both good news and bad news for those of interested in presentation skills standards.
The good news is that it puts the focus on on the importance of eye contact - the prime benefit of Autocue - which is too often overlooked. Strong eye contact positions the speaker as more credible, trustworthy, confident and assertive, as well as more friendly. The opposite is even more true. When Tony Blair reportedly sought advice on presentation skills from Kevin Spacey prior to his final conference speech Spacey came back with two recommendations: build in some pauses and work harder at the eye contact.
The bad news is that is will send out the message to presenters everywhere that it is acceptable to deliver from a script and you don't really need to learn that script too precisely. The fact is that you do need to start with a script - to ensure your presentation is crafted as well as it can be - but then you need to know the content of that script so well that you can deliver it naturally, without any prompts other than a simple 'map' to get you back on track should you be unfortunate enough to 'freeze'.
There is a fundamental difference between writing for the page and writing for the ear. The former tends almost inevitably to be more formal and will therefore sound stilted when said out loud. It may even be difficult to say out loud. Unless you have a team of speech writers and plenty of rehearsal time you are never going to achieve real success simply by reading off an Autocue.
I always say to those I am coaching that there is one single, very simple secret to successful delivery - and that is knowing what you are going to say. That is the downfall of most failed presenters ("I thought it would be better off the cuff....I've been so busy I didn't really have time to rehearse etc etc") and truly knowing what you are going to say is what creates confidence, conviction and the subtle points of detail that contribute so much to a successful presentation.
David Cameron has to deliver so many presentations on such a diverse range of topics - all within a punishing schedule - that he can be excused the use of Autocue. Most of the rest of us should bone up properly on what we are going to say and step forward with little more than a simple 'map' to get us back on track if we need it. I call this a 'Confidence Card" because just having it there usually provides enough reassurance to ensure that you don't actually need it.
Nick Fitzherbert's book Presentation Magic is published by Marshall Cavendish