Speaking without notes?

As a coach, I believe that every presentation problem can be overcome through listening, reflection, reworking and rehearsing. That is to say, I listen and share some ideas, the learner reflects and reworks their delivery and through rehearsal they can usual remove the obstacle to good speaking or improve their presentation.

I recently had the privilege of working with an experienced speaker who confessed that he struggled to speak without the use of notes. “I can help with that,” I replied confidently and we agreed to meet for an hour’s coaching. Although everyone is different, I thought it might be useful to share the ideas we came up with so that you can consider if these could help you.

The recent occasion in which my client had come short was during an after-dinner speech in which he was heckled. The comment was well received by both him and the audience; the only problem was it threw him and he lost his train of thought. Having been impressed when the previous speaker didn’t use notes, he decided to follow suit and left them at his table. Therein lay the problem and my first piece of advice.

  1. Keep your notes to hand

How many times have you needed your car’s airbag? If like me, your answer is never, I bet you still wouldn’t go without one, even if the laws of the country allowed it. For many of us, using notes is not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of sanity! Which lead me to my next point…

  1. Be wise not weak

When I asked Frank* why he felt he had speak without notes, it emerged he thought it a sign of weakness and that his audience might expect it of him. If using notes means delivering a confident and coherent speech, it  is wise, not weak. Don’t be apologetic about it – the last thing your audience wants is for you to fail and notes can give you security and will ensure you don’t embarrass yourself or your audience as they cringe on your behalf! Having said that, over-dependence on notes is not good and there’s no substitute for plenty of practice.

  1. Be kind to yourself

When I asked if he would expect the same high standards of a fellow speaker, he admitted that he would not think less of another person for using notes. We are our own worse critics! We need to be kind to ourselves; as kind as we are to others.

  1. Keep it neat

If you do decide to use notes, I recommend an A6 card. Paper is too flimsy and can easily fly off your lectern. If you don’t have a lectern it will curl in your hands and not promote confidence. And finally, if you have more than one piece of paper, it will invariably be difficult to move from one sheet to the next. Anything larger will look awkward and A4 will not only make finding your place more challenging but send a message to your audience that they’re in for a long speech!

Once you’ve decided to have notes, they need to be very brief, perhaps the keyword or idea that represents the main point, and/or the link to the next point. I don’t recommend sentence starters or clever phrases you just don’t want to forget. These tend to inhibit the flow of the speech and make you rigid about sticking to what you originally wrote.

  1. Know your place

Having just these keywords or links, you then need to practice using the cards and know where to find these words should you need to reference your notes. Often I’m halfway or towards the end of a speech before I need to glance down to check what’s next. There’s nothing worse than keeping the audience waiting while you figure out where to pick up the next point. If you’ve practised your speech with cards, you’ll know exactly where you are.

  1. Map it

We all have a favourite way of learning that is most effective for us. The spider diagram with the topic in the middle and various legs leading us to the points in a speech may really work for some, while others have brains that work much better with a linear method which uses bullet points and perhaps arrows. Find out which works best for you, but if you can reduce your speech to either, you may be able to walk to the lectern with just one card. In fact, if you’ve practised enough with what’s on the card, you may find that you don’t even have to look at it, as you can see the next point or link in your mind’s eye.

Here’s an example of each:

notes example

  1. Take a Journey

I had intended to share some wise words with Frank about having links between his ideas so that he could easily remember the next point as it flowed naturally from the one before. However, this very experienced speaker had already done this and in one particular section, the links were based on an imagined walk from one place to the next through the city on which his speech was based. But it emerged he wasn’t using this as a memory tool!  When he consciously realised he had very strong links between his ideas, and wrote these down, he had no problem remembering what came next. So do create a speech or presentation that flows naturally from one idea to the other; it will make the speech more fluent to deliver and to listen to.

Although it won’t always suit a speech to imagine walking from one place to the next, you can do this using a very clever trick when practising. Either walk through your house and deliver each part in a different room so that on the night, you can mentally go on that journey and remember what you said in each room or, if you know your venue, you can ‘place’ each idea in a different part of the room. For example, your introduction is the door at the back, your first idea is the window on the right, then the window on the left, the next the light fitting in the middle, and so on. Of course, it’s important to make eye contact with your audience in between!

  1. Consider not writing your speech down

Having delivered 8 out of 10 speeches in my Competent Toastmasters journey, a well-meaning fellow speaker said, “You really need to lose your notes.” I thought about it carefully and proceeded to complete the journey reliant on notes. When I moved to England, I turned a new page. I realised that my problem was not my over-dependence on notes but my attachment to my clever turn of phrase in the speech I had written. The only way I could break out of this habit was to not write my speech in the first place! You see, I realised that if the speech came out of my head and landed on paper, I struggled to bring it back to life and out through my mouth. But if I didn’t commit it to paper, it could only come out of my head!

Since then, I rarely stand up with more than a few points on a card. This is why I have spoken about ideas and not paragraphs. This is the only way I have succeeded in losing notes and might be worth considering if you also struggle in this area.

So a lesson which was to focus on speaking without notes turned into a lesson about using notes effectively, minimising the use of notes and perhaps not needing to use the notes that you have. But I return to my first point – don’t discard your airbag. Happy speaking!


*Frank is not his real name.

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