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Notes-free Public Speaking?

Should you use notes when speaking in public?

Most of us have given a speech or a presentation or said a few words at a social event and have been holding a bunch of papers in our hands. And we had those papers because we were afraid of forgetting whatever we wanted to say or because there was a lot to say or because it just made us feel better, safer.

I am often asked if you should use notes when you speak in public. The goal of any public appearance is to be notes-free. Because it increases authenticity, engagement, impact and credibility. Being notes-free sends a message of control, confidence and authority. That’s the final destination. I understand, however, that not everybody is ready to fly solo and a few interim steps are necessary to reach that level of proficiency. So here are 4 steps you can try before you take off:

Notes-free Public Speaking increases authenticity, engagement and impact

  1. When you begin presenting or doing public speeches or when your confidence is still low or when stakes are high and you don’t want to mess up, take a full script with you. This doesn’t mean that you should read it, it doesn’t mean you should memorize it either. It means that, in the absence of full confidence, it is acceptable to take a print copy of the speech with you. Unless you are reading verbatim, the audience won’t judge your performance on the fact that you had ‘papers’ with you. This option is not ideal though and it is only to be used when absolutely necessary. Reading is ‘acceptable’ only if you make sure you lift your head often enough to connect with the audience and make eye contact. Again, not ideal either.
  2. As your confidence and your degree of familiarity with the subject matter grow, the natural next step on ‘notes management’ is to move away from the ‘full script’ method and move on to the ‘summary’ version. What this means is that, once you have completed your preparation before a speech or a presentation, you synthetize the core contents/ideas/stories into 2 or 3 paragraphs that will serve as a reminder to keep you on track or to pull you from the brink should you forget what you are supposed to say.
  3. Over time, body language, pace, pauses, storytelling and humor will come to you naturally (with practice and focus) and you will then be ready to step on to the ‘cards’ system. This is a more advanced and more minimalist approach whereby instead of a piece of paper you will only have with you a few (4 or 5) small cards (the size of a business card) on which you will have written a few bullet points or ideas or keywords to provide your performance with the required smoothness and with the illusion of having no notes with you. Audiences will hardly notice that you have a bunch of cards in your hand or on the lectern/table in front of you. This is great because it provides with a safety net (should your memory/preparation fail) and it creates the illusion that you are speaking notes-free.
  4. No notes. This is the final step. An exciting one. A dangerous one (dangerous in a good way). You will step on the stage to deliver a prepared speech or one you have had almost no time to prepare and you will do so without any supportive notes or audiovisual material. This is possible and it is fabulous. It requires a lot of practice, a lot of experience, a little bit of ‘interest in risk-taking’ and, above all, a desire to deliver a performance that comes from the heart (and not from notes), resonates with and is remembered by the audience and creates an impact. The risk is obvious: if your mind goes blank (and it could, it has happened to me!) you will find yourself in an embarrassing situation that may see you having to step down from the stage with a painful apology to the audience. Experienced speakers will be able to recover from such situation by digressing for a short while or by admitting the challenge with a smile in their face and gaining a few precious seconds before their brains ‘reconnect again’. The way to have your cake and eat it is to have the aforementioned bunch of cards in your pocket to be used only in case of a disaster. You are still delivering solo but you have a safety net, out of sight. Being notes-free is possible, it just requires preparation and clarity of thought.

No notes. This is the final step. An exciting one.

One of the most memorable political speeches in recent history is David Cameron’s speech at the Conservative Party Conference in 2005 and it is so precisely because he spoke for an hour, eloquently and passionately, without any notes, not even a teleprompter (a device that politicians and other celebrities depend on for televised speeches).

Practice your way through the 4 steps described above and you will be impressing audiences with your apparent notes-free mastery before you know it! As always, if you have doubts, concerns or questions about this piece of public speaking advice, please, get in touch with me.

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