Speaking Tips: Using Notes

Have you ever heard someone tell you that you shouldn’t use notes in a speech? It almost sounds impossible, doesn’t it? Imagine having to give a lengthy presentation, and you suddenly draw a blank. How do you handle it without a reference to where you should be? Here’s the secret: Go ahead and use notes. But wait, that’s just the tip of the iceberg!

Let me guess, right now you’re thinking that Toastmasters tells you not to use notes, right?

Wrong.

Again, I know what you’re thinking. Yup. You’re thinking that the last objective in Project 3 of the Competent Communicator manual says “Strive not to use notes”, right? You’re right, it does say that! You might also be thinking that CC Speech #9 says “Avoid using notes…” on page 46 and again in Speech #10’s description on page 50. Right again. Sounds like you really know your stuff.

So, was I wrong when I said Wrong? No.

FAQ: Toastmasters helps people to be confident and competent speakers by (among other things) helping eliminate the reading of their speeches and the unnecessary use of notes. Some people translate that to mean “Toastmasters says don’t use notes.” 

I disagree. I believe the concept is to instill good habits in the CC process, such as organizing your speeches, improving yor delivery (voice, gestures, etc.) and reducing your dependency on notes. After all, after just a little experience you should be able to practice and deliver a 5-7 minute speech without needing notes.  Editors note: One important time to avoid notes is in Toastmasters contests. There is no rule about it, but in my experience judges tend to be less impressed by a contest speaker using notes.

Now for the real-world application:

Let’s say you need to present a 30-minute talk to a group of college students on preparing for their first interview. Let’s use a simple breakdown:

3-5 minutes – opening: Connect, deliver your promise, cover the roadmap (tell your 3-main points)
5-7 minutes – first main point: Research the company
5-7 minutes – second main point: Prepare your message
5-7 minutes – third main point: Dress the part
2-3 minutes – closing: wrap up

How would your notes look? This is a partial example that should serve to make the point work for you.

Opening:
Story of my first interview
Promise: “in just 20-minutes you’ll have the foundation you need to prepare for that first interview”
Roadmap: Research, Preparation, Presence
Transition: “in order to be present, you must do your homework”

First point:
Question: “Have you picked a place to work yet?”
Discussion: You need to know them as bad as they need to know you
Transition: Now that you know your audience, let’s prepare your message  

Second point:
Story about the interviewee that couldn’t answer the question”Why do you want to work here?”
Question: “Would you hire someone who said they were just in it for the money?”
Topic points: 3-keys to your personal brand
Transition: Your brand won’t impress if your clothes are unpressed

Third point:
Demonstration of two well dressed candidates and two less dressed candidates (PowerPoint)
Topic points: The right colors, the “half step up” rule, local resources
Transition to close: how the 3 points fit together

Conclusion:
Finish first interview story – I received an offer
Recap the Roadmap: Research, Preparation, Presence
Final thought: Know your audience, know yourself, and know your shoes and you will be the one that gets that offer everyone is hoping for. 

You may be able to get by without even glancing at these notes at all. However, if something distracts you and throws you off course, all you have to do is glance at the notes and see what is next. For instance, if you look at the beginning of the second point, you know to launch into that story of the kid that said “I wanna get paid”. Also, if you notice you’re running behind in point two, you can glance down and mentally line out “The right colors” in point three to help you recover some of that time.

Remember, notes shouldn’t be a crutch or something you read. Notes are a tool to help you stay on track and provide the best content possible. After all, you goal isn’t to win “memorizer of the year”. Your goal is likely to be to help the audience with the topic you’re speaking on. If it means you glance down once in a while…so be it. Better to glance down occasionally and get it right, instead of missing a main point you were expected to cover, and then never being asked back.

Notes aren’t the enemy. Practice those 5-7 minute Toastmasters speeches without them, but then when your rep is on the line at work or on the stage, use the tools you need to be successful. Trust me, all the best speakers have used them at one time or another.

Bonus tip: If your speaking in an environment where others will speak before you, have a couple of spare note cards to jot down things you may be able to call back to in your speech.

2 comments
  1. Good points. I think we need to remember what the end goal is: the audience being influenced by our message.

    I personally would rather have a speaker glancing at an outline periodically as he/she gives a focused speech than having someone ramble for 20 minutes with no notes.

    Sometimes we think either/or. Either you bury your head in notes or don’t use them at all. There is a happy medium.

  2. Notes are a good idea for those complicated quotes that you may not have had a reason or time to memorize and for statistics which need to be correct. It is better to use notes than to make a mis-quote. Some speeches such as some technical briefings may need to be nearly word for word so a text is required although the text can be done with expression. It is now in vogue to use notes on the inside of your hand.

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