There is no excuse for being a bore. However dull the material may inherently be, it’s the responsibility of the speaker to bring out interesting aspects of it and to communicate the data with enthusiasm. People are giving up their time to listen to us and we owe it to them to make the experience worthwhile.
However, that is not what this post is about. The point I want to make today is about the use of notes. My clients often ask me whether they should be attempting to learn their talks off by heart and, providing they’re going to be speaking for more than a few seconds, I always say no. For one thing, if you’re standing up in front of an audience and your mind suddenly goes blank, if you have no notes to prompt you, what are you going to do? There is no need to dispense with the safety net of notes; indeed, it can be asking for trouble. The other risk is that you deliver your talk as if you’re reading it from an internal script. Honestly, reciting a speech from memory can sound just as stilted and unnatural as reading it.
An essential element in successful public speaking is to match one’s style with the setting and the audience. On formal occasions, it may not matter if your delivery is somewhat staid. Indeed, it may be fine actually to read your speech (although I can’t think of many situations when this would be preferable to speaking naturally, albeit in a measured and formal way). But, particularly if your aim is to spur your listeners to some sort of action, you will not achieve this without showing some passion – and it’s a tricky balance to reconcile passion with notes.
I have recently returned from a visit to California, where I had a totally awesome time, thanks to my lovely friends there. One of the myriad fascinating experiences I had was attending a food festival, where, after a fabulous lunch, speakers were exhorting us to think carefully about what we eat, to support local farmers, to lobby against genetic modification of crops, and so on. In my professional capacity as a public-speaking coach, I was particularly struck by a woman who made an excellent speech badly and lost almost all the impact she would otherwise have had. She told a moving story about how she gave up nursing to start a grocery business, making people healthier by providing them with good food instead of medicine. At least, the story would have been moving if she had told it to us directly, rather than reading it.
The big mistake this woman made was to write out a full script. Even if you believe you know your talk so well that you will hardly need to look at the script, in reality if you’ve got a script in front of you it is all but impossible not to read it, word for word. Reading automatically puts you at one remove from the audience – and the effect is compounded by the fact that if you’re looking at the script you’re not looking at the people in front of you.
A subsidiary mistake was that her sheaf of A4 notes became a barrier between her and her listeners. She was apart from us, unconnected, dispassionate despite the emotional words she was using.
So, how do we talk for ten minutes or more and make sure we say what we want to say, without a script to support us? The answer is index cards with bullet points. These are small enough to be discreet and they are there to keep us on track, not for us to read the content out loud. If, in the heat of the moment, we deviate slightly from what we prepared, or express ourselves not quite in the polished way we planned, never mind. When we’re out to be rousing, passion is more important than perfection.