The stigma that is widely associated with using notes while making a speech is misplaced and has dangerous consequences. I assume the reason behind it is that people conflate referring to notes with reading a script – though in reality those two things are as different as a driver occasionally checking the map or following the instructions in the manual to get the car to move.
As Ed Miliband discovered last week, if you’re making a long speech without notes, you risk leaving out some of what you planned to say. In Ed’s case, this was particularly unfortunate, partly because what he missed out were crucial sections, giving rise to accusations of a Freudian lapsus, hiding from himself the issues he didn’t want to confront. The omissions wouldn’t have been quite so obvious if the speech hadn’t been provided to the press before it was delivered – and one can’t help wondering about the purpose (let alone the efficacy) of feigning spontaneity when the text has been distributed in advance.
If you insist on speaking without notes, the way to do it is to make your talk into a story, to give it a strong narrative arc, so that you’ll remember and recount it as you would any tale or anecdote. It can be done – Ed himself pulled it off successfully a couple of years ago and I wrote about it on this blog – but it’s not necessarily a feat to be proud of, because it’s kind of missing the point.
In other contexts, people refer to lists, agendas, little black books. Why not? I’m not a better friend to you than you are to me because I know your telephone number off by heart and you can’t remember mine. That’s irrelevant – and so is delivering your speech from memory. What matters is what you say and how you say it.
Having notes to refer to keeps you on track and frees up your mind to engage fully with what you’re saying and to connect with the audience. If you use them well and look at them only on the off-beat between points, half your listeners won’t even register you’ve got notes. And the other half will be only vaguely aware, swept up as they will be in the content of your speech.