Public speaking and presenting without notes

Public speaking tips tick

One of the most common misconceptions I come across is that speaking with notes is the sign of a weak public speaker and that we should all strive to speak without notes at all times.

In this article I will look to explain why it is not necessarily a weakness to use notes in your speech or presentation, how to make good speech notes and my top tip to reduce your use of notes going forward so that you can concentrate on engaging your audience.

The main reason that we always want to have our notes or prompter cards by our side when speaking or presenting is so that we don’t forget our speech content, freeze up and ultimately deliver a bad presentation. So many of us believe that having notes shows a sign of weakness and is something that will cause our audience to lose faith in us.

Imagine the alternative. You don’t have notes, you forget your speech and you bomb massively.

Now remember that not only do you not want this to happen, but your audience doesn’t either! They’ve come to be inspired, informed, entertained or persuaded. If you don’t deliver, your audience goes home unfulfilled – which is not what they want.

Never forget that your audience wants you to succeed and if you need notes to do this, then so be it. A successful speaker with notes is better off than an unsuccessful one without them!

Making good speech notes

All of the above must be balanced with giving an engaging presentation and so your use of notes should not be excessive. If you’re constantly gazing down at your notes then your eyes are most definitely not on your audience and certainly not engaging them with eye contact and facial gestures at key points in your speech.

Good notes should therefore be the following:

Large – If you have to squint or pull your cards to your nose to read them, you’ll spend too much time looking down and not enough engaging your audience

Brief – stick to key points or headings that will jog your memory – writing out your speech in full for your notes will only encourage you to read it straight from your cards with your head down

Professional – I don’t know about you, but I have more faith in a speaker reading notes from smart cards than one reading notes written on the back of cereal box – be aware how the neatness of your notes and aids impacts on your audience.

If the audience is busy judging your cereal box notes, they are not taking in our amazing words and delivery.

So how best to balance your use of notes as a memory aid (not a crutch) and engaging your audience?

My personal recommendation is to quite literally turn your use of notes 180 degrees.

When you are nervous, it is so tempting to clutch your notes as tightly as possible and even use them as a barrier between you and your audience, holding them against your chest or blocking your face.

You don’t have to speak without your notes at your next speech, but at the same time, you don’t have to have them in your hands. If they are placed before you on a lectern, or to your side on a desk, they are just as accessible should you need a quick reminder on your next point.

Here’s a technique that I used when learning to speak without notes to gradually reduce my reliance on my prompter cards over time. I hope you can use it to good effect too.

On your first speech: Place your notes on a lectern in front of you, use them as necessary.

On your second speech: Move the lectern, or location of your notes 45 degrees to your left. Use your notes as necessary.

On your third speech: Move your notes to a location another 45 degrees (or more) to the left. Your notes may now be behind you and out of sight, but they are not out of mind and are still easily accessible, should you need them.

If you keep using this technique until your notes are directly behind you during a speech, you will quickly find that your reliance on the ‘comfort blanket’ of your prompter cards reduces. Eventually you may even ‘forget’ to use them at all.

If you strategically place your notes in an accessible location before going on stage, you may find that your audience are unaware that you even have notes at all – a bonus!

Use this tip at a pace that suits you. It may be that it takes you lots of attempts to gradually move your notes further away, but have faith that you will get there. It takes all speakers varying amounts of time to get to a point where they are ‘note independent’.

All the while that you are using this technique your notes are always accessible. Nothing as changed – you’re just not hiding behind those prompter cards any more!

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Rich Watts is the UK Business Speaker of the Year and a past JCI National Public Speaking champion. He setup and now runs Rich Public Speaking providing presentation skills and public speaking training.

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