Using notes effectively in public speaking

bigstock-Business-conference-smallerWhat is all this rubbish about notes undermining a speaker’s credibility? I hear this a lot and I can only assume the speakers in question are using their notes as a script and that what their audiences are objecting to is not the notes as such but the fact that the ‘speakers’ are reading their ‘speeches’. It’s not public reading, folks, it’s public speaking, and reading is no way to engage or build a rapport with the people you’re there to talk to.

Without a script, how are you supposed to remember everything you want to say? Let me first draw your attention to what NOT to do:

DON’T design your PowerPoint slides to double as notes. Your notes are prompts for you; the audience doesn’t need to see them. In any case, if you’re not sure what’s coming next until the slide is displayed to everyone, you’ll always be on the back foot, instead of one step ahead.

DON’T settle down to memorise your talk. This is very nearly as bad as reading it; reciting from an internal script allows you to look at the people in front of you but you’ll still sound stilted. Also, the effort of remembering it will soak up all the energy you need for connecting with the audience.

Public speaking should not be a feat of memory. If you’re going to be saying more than a very few words, notes are the way to go. Properly used, they save all sorts of stress and help you do a much better job – just knowing they’re there will prevent you worrying about your mind going blank. If you refer to your notes only between points, at least half the audience won’t even register you’ve got them, though it really doesn’t matter if they do notice. What is insincere or shabby about wanting to deliver a clear, focused talk in the order you planned it? Far from reducing your credibility, it shows you’re organised and care about giving the audience your best.

That is, of course, if you use your notes sensibly and are not seen to be looking up the name of your company’s managing director or the product you’re trying to sell.

Clients often ask me what their notes should look like. The answer is, it’s completely up to you. Everyone is different and finds different styles of prompt useful. Most people have some variation on bullet points, with a word or two for each one, just enough to remind them what the point is that they want to make. When you start preparing your speech or presentation, you’ll probably have copious jottings, including elements of how you want to express your ideas, as well as what you want to cover. This is fine at the beginning (though beware of writing sentences because they can so easily turn into a script) but, as you refine your talk, cut down your notes so that you’re left only with the what.

Depending on the circumstances in which you’re going to be speaking, the best thing to write your notes on is usually index cards. A sheaf of A4 paper is too much of a barrier between you and the people you’re talking to and an iPad or tablet is too heavy. Write only on one side of the card, for ease of navigation, write clearly and large enough that you can read what you’ve written without having to strain or reach for your glasses. I recommend punching a hole in the corner of your assembled cards and tying them loosely together. Even if you’ve numbered them, if you drop them just before you’re due to speak, it’s just too flustering.

Instead of memorising your talk, say out loud what you’re planning to say until it flows smoothly and consistently. This is how you come to know how you’re going to express yourself: you’ll say it like that on the day because that’s how you always say it.

Your notes are in your hand to act as a map, to keep you on track and make sure you don’t miss out any stages of the journey. The crucial guideline here is that you should never consult your notes while you are actually speaking. All the time you’re talking, you should be looking at the audience. Finish the point you’re making, then, after a couple of seconds, look down at your notes to see what’s next. This is a pause, during which your audience will be thinking about what you’ve just told them, so you’ve got plenty of time. When you’re ready, look up and start speaking again.

As you rehearse, practise looking at your notes between your major points (ie, look at each point you’ve made a note of). If you don’t build this in, on the day you may get carried away and not look at your notes until you get stuck. Not only is this a pity, since notes work best as prevention rather than cure, but you may also find it difficult to locate where you’ve got to, now you’ve gone ahead of your cards.

The only complication is when you’re using a microphone, simply because of not having enough hands. Where possible, check with the venue in advance to see if you can wear a lapel mic. If it’s got to be hand-held, make sure you rehearse with a hairbrush or something similar, so your hands get used to being full and you don’t fumble every time you turn a card.

Don’t be put off by what you hear. When speakers are criticised for using notes, the notes are getting the blame for a badly delivered speech or presentation, when the real problem lies elsewhere. Discreet use of notes, as outlined above, will do nothing to harm your reputation as a confident, effective speaker. In fact, I maintain, it will help to create and strengthen that reputation.


About Georgie

Coach and consultant in effective communication - public speaking, interviews & pitches, training, lecturing, meetings, debates & discussions. Motivational speaker
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