Public Speaking – To Use Notes or Not To Use Notes? That is the question!

Posted: 13th September 2017

Public Speaking – To Use Notes or Not To Use Notes? That is the question!

Last week I had the great honour of being present when one of my clients was presented with a business award. It was a thrilling moment and the award will naturally be a great boost to her confidence in business. She stood proudly to receive it and delivered a neat and succinct Thank You speech, full of excitement, genuine gratitude and enthusiasm.

Later in the evening someone else received an award in a different category and had gone to great lengths to write her thank you speech out. The notes were on her phone and I was really amazed to see this person stand up to deliver what was in fact a very good speech, but keep referring to her phone for the notes. It got me thinking as this is not the first time I have seen this done and it seems to be the start of a trend.

Let’s think about this for a moment. The mobile phone represents disconnection from those around you. We all know how annoying it can be to be with someone for a simple thing like a coffee and they keep looking at their phone! It feels rude when you are on the receiving end and the person just isn’t giving you their full undivided attention.  The phone represents disassociation from those you are addressing. The other thing is, the woman in question kept having to scroll down her phone to find her place… didn’t add anything to the delivery or flow of her acceptance speech which was a good five minutes in length.

As speakers, we need to understand that whenever we drop our eyes away from members of our audience we disconnect from them. Sometimes this disconnection cannot be helped, we all need to look at our notes now and again, if we need them. But we need to ensure those notes are in a form that doesn’t send out a negative and unintended message to our audience.

There was a time when all speeches were read from manuscripts and the great orators would recite from the handwritten or typed document in front of them. The birth of the teleprompter changed all of this. Today, the mark of a good speaker is that they can deliver their talk or speech without reading verbatim from documents but seemingly from memory.

How Do I Remember What I’m Going To Say?

Many inexperienced speakers worry about how they are going to remember their talk and are convinced that they must know it off by heart in order to look and sound professional. This isn’t expected at all, but there is an art to using notes which means they don’t detract from what you need to say.

Should I Memorise My Talk?

You might be thinking that you have to memorise your talk. Well, you don’t! Many speakers who have memorised their talk flounder and completely lose their way when they find themselves unsure of where they are in their talk. Having bullet points can really help you and keep you on track. If you are trying to speak totally from memory and you get things in the wrong order, it will be easier to recover if you have some notes in front of you. Sometimes you can hit something called a ‘mind blank’, when everything you wanted to say, you just cannot recall. Notes are a definite help if this happens.  There is also the thing about an over rehearsed talk sounding exactly that, over rehearsed and lacking in tone, inflection and spontaneity.  There may be a tendency to over rehearse if you want to recall everything from memory word for word.

Can I Use PowerPoint?

Using PowerPoint as a substitute for notes, is not a good idea, if the power fails…… an audience will always sniff you out for lack of preparation. Reading from slides or relying on them to prompt what you want to say is almost unforgivable and you will come across as a dull speaker. If you are that bored by what you are talking about that you have fallen in to these bad habits…….stop speaking, find a new job or find something to speak about for which you feel passionate.

PowerPoint can be used to great effect, but it takes work to do it with style and do it well.   The best users of Power Point have learned how to truly connect with their audience before they lean on the technology. Ask yourself “Could I give this talk without the slides and still get my message across?” Some talks are greatly improved by ditching the PowerPoint.

Commit Your Talk to Paper

So, agreed, notes are not a bad thing and you can learn to use them well. Give yourself time and practice to do so.

In order to create notes, you will first have to write your talk out in full. Practice reading it and then start to identify “Key Words”. Transfer these words to paper. When you are happy with these, write them on A6 size cards. Use card as opposed to paper, which will be too flimsy and can easily tear or blow away in a draught. (Also, if you find yourself trembling this will be less obvious when holding cards as opposed to paper) Just have 1 or 2 words on each card and these will become your bullet points to trigger what you need to say.

What Do I Do With My Cards?

Your cards can be placed on a nearby table or you can hold them in your hand. If they are on the table and you have to refer to them, there are a couple of things you can do so that you unobtrusively read them. Make sure you have a glass of water on the table and pick it up to take a sip. This will give you the opportunity to consult your notes too, nobody will mind the speaker having a drink and a breather – it’s thirsty work! This pause also allows the audience to think and process what you are saying.

What Happens If I Drop Them?

If you have more than four cards, punch a hole in the corner of each and tie them together with a treasury tag. Write in BIG bold, black letters and number them. Not having them tied together can be a “recipe for disaster” if they fall on the floor and end up in the wrong order. Make sure you are able to see what you have written on the cards at a simple glance. Always print two copies in case you lose a set – it’s amazing how things can go missing!

Quotes and Statistics

Write out  in full “Quotes” and “Statistics”. It’s the kind of thing you really do want to get right, so needing to read from notes for this is fine.

Key Points About Using Notes:

  • Identify Key Words
  • Write on Cards
  • Use Large Letters
  • Note Down Statistics/Quotes
  • Tie Cards Together

As you become a more experienced and accomplished speaker, you may find you rarely or never refer to them and your notes will become “Handy-to-Have” items and not “Must-Have” items.

There is no shame in having notes with you when you deliver a talk, just aim to use them in a supportive way and a way where your audience hardly notice you have them.

Aly Harrold is an award-winning speaker who has coached many people to deliver spell binding talks. If you have an upcoming speech/talk/presentation and need some help to make it the best it can be please contact Aly on 07909 765348. Aly runs regular workshops and group programmes.

The next Three-Month Programme – ‘Step Up And Shine  Creating Confident Speakers’ starts on February  2nd 2019

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