June 22, 2007

Use notes . . . don't use notes

I've been noticing lately that a number of public speaking tip sheets and blogs advise not to use notes.

I've read that "professionals never use notes" and "when you are truly passionate about the topic that you are speaking about you'll find that the words will just flow out of your mouth and your memory of what you are to discuss will be solid." (That one is absolute poppycock.)

I'm going to disagree (as I often do when someone throws out a blanket statement like "professionals never use notes").

The purpose of notes is not to have your entire presentation written out word-for-word, but to use notes as a trigger to help you remember what comes next.

Reading from pages of dense paragraphs will only make you appear robotic (unless you're a skilled actor who is used to memorizing scripts) and stiff. And if you lose your place, it's going to be awfully hard to find again.

Using note cards also seems hazardous to me - what if they get out of order, or (likely in my case) you drop them? Having to hold note cards in your hands will also inhibit movement and gestures so that, once again, you appear stiff and unnatural.

I recommend to my clients that they use one page for notes, either bullet-pointed or in outline format, whichever works best for their needs. They can even use the one page double-sided. That way, there are no cards to mess up and no long documents to scroll through.

Then I suggest that they put the notes aside. Leave them on a side table or the lectern (which, of course, they are not standing behind), and only refer to them when necessary. It's perfectly natural to walk over to your notes and find your next point, as long as you don't take all day to do it. It's one way of incorporating a nice pause at a transition in your talk.

When rehearsing the presentation, the bullets or outlined points will start to form a chronology in your mind. You start getting into a flow of "what comes next." However, to expect that your passion and enthusiasm during a presentation will magically make that happen is a bit of a stretch, unless you've been doing this particular speech over and over for some time.

Yes, practice is critical, because no matter how helpful your notes are, you do not want to have to refer to them every minute. But having notes on hand does ensure that, no matter what happens - lights go out, microphone fails, sprinklers turn on - you can always find your way back to your message.

I always have notes with me, even if I've been giving the same presentation for a while. In fact, I remember once when I was speaking every day in high schools, I forgot my outline.

So I sat down before class started, wrote out the notes from memory onto a piece of paper, and put it to the side as usual. It was comforting to have the notes there, a security blanket perhaps, even though I had been giving variations of this presentation for years. Clearly, I didn't need the notes, but again, you never know what might happen. Especially in a high school classroom.

Use notes if it's right for you. Don't use notes if you don't want to. It's entirely up to you.

If you choose to use notes, don't read them word-for-word, don't hold them in your hands, and don't use them as a crutch. But you're not a loser if you use them, and yes, professionals do use notes.

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