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Speaking Notes – Public Speaking “Felony” or Useful Tool?

Tips on using notes when speaking in public


At Toastmaster meetings, I often see new speakers using notes when they give their speeches.

Later in the meeting, when the speech is being evaluated, one of the suggestions that I constantly hear from the evaluator is:

“I would like to see you reach a point where you don’t use notes when giving a speech in the future.”

I have often wondered…why are we so quick to discourage the use of speaking notes?

I understand the suggestion for short speeches. In most cases, with proper practice and preparation, notes should really not be needed for shorter speeches. However, I believe we should think of using notes as more of a tool than a crutch, especially if they are used discreetly and effectively.

Instead of discouraging the use of speaking notes, why not teach proper and discreet methods of using them?

Notes have their place in public speaking. When used correctly, they can help keep us in line and on point as we are delivering our message to others. To discourage someone from using notes instead of giving them tips on using them effectively is like giving someone a hiking map with the start and ending point, but nothing in between to show them the important landmarks, ravines, and hills they will encounter along their journey.

Your audience wants you to succeed!

I firmly believe the statement above. The last thing that I want to see as an audience member is a speaker getting stuck in the middle of their presentation. If it happens, I find myself subconsciously trying to throw a little “energy” to them to help them get unstuck. When they get back on track, I feel a sense of relief. After the speech, I usually talk with others and find out that they also felt relief when the speaker was able to get unstuck and keep going.

I honestly believe that if you are doing your job as a speaker and keeping the audience entertained and engaged, it really does not matter to them if you are using notes…as long as those notes are not causing a distraction.

How to use notes in your speech without having them become a distraction

If you watch speakers on video or in person, you may notice several of them use some form of notes in their presentations. Some do a better job than others. They have found a way to make the discreet use of notes work for them. Some use small tables on the stage to set their notes and reference materials on. Others use a lectern on one side of the stage as “home base,” and will slowly saunter over to it when they need to refer to their notes.

For shorter speeches, some use a note card with an outline or even a Post-it note to help keep their speech organized.

I have taken some of the approaches other speakers have taken to using notes, added some of my ideas, and came up with a system that I am currently using now.

Here are some of the things I do when I prepare speaking notes, and use those notes in my presentations:

  • Create an outline for the speech. The outline creates a map from start to finish, with all the points to cover during the speech. You can start with the speech written out word-for-word then break it down into smaller “bite sized” parts to create the outline.
  • Be comfortable with the subject. This, combined with strong extemporaneous speaking skills will help fill in the blanks and overcome any obstacles in the speech. Refer to the outline during the speech to give you direction.
  • Practice, Practice, Practice! Not to memorize the speech and sound robotic, but to get comfortable and confident with your speech. This will also uncover any changes that need to be made in the speech. You will be able to face anything that is thrown at you with the comfort and confidence you have from practicing. (I admit…I need to do this more often!)
  • Type the outline in a plain font in order to make it easy to read. I also like to use a large font (14-18), bold text, and green or red font color on my outlines. I use these two colors because our eyes focus on them easier (which is why the lights at the intersection are green and red).
  • If you have more than one page for the outline, when printing it out, avoid the urge to print on both sides of the paper. This will help keep you from flipping the pages and causing a distraction. Instead, you will be able to discreetly slide the pages from one side of the lectern to the other.
  • Speaking of lecterns…if the lectern is moveable, I will usually shift it over to one side of the stage, and distance it just far enough for me to effectively use the speaking area while being able to read my outline at a glance. If the font is large enough, the lectern can be several feet away and I’ll still be able to make a quick glance over to it, and see what my next point is.
  • A music stand works perfectly when a lectern is unavailable or impractical. It is small enough to be unobtrusive, and is quite affordable (cheap!). I will usually set it up to where the top of the page is almost at eye level, so I am able to remain in good contact with the audience. On occasion, audience members have told me they did not realize that I was using notes in my presentation, because I was able to just glance at them, and make it look natural.

    My music stand with notes.

    My music stand with notes.

  • If none of these are available, you can use the corner of a table, or even have the notes in hand. I found that carrying my speaking notes in my left hand works best for me, because I use my right hand more when gesturing. I resorted to using this recently at a facilitation where the lighting in the speaking area was insufficient. While someone answered a question or offered feedback, I would take a quick glance at my outline to see my location on the “map.”

Using speaking notes should not be considered a “public speaking felony.” Instead, they should be considered as a tool to help you stay on track and give a better presentation. Don’t be afraid to experiment with using notes – use some of these tips, observe how other speakers use their notes, and find out what works best for you.

When you discover what works for you, help others improve their speaking skills by sharing your knowledge!

Currently, I am in the middle of a great book on public speaking by Scott Berkun, titled Confessions of a Public Speaker. Scott has over 15 years of public speaking experience, and in this book, brings some great insight on the skill of public speaking. It is a very interesting, informative, and honest book that can help anyone improve their public speaking skills.

Click Here to Order Confessions of a Public Speaker


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