A Few Notes About Notes

Speakers notes often get in the way of what is being said
Speakers notes often get in the way of what is being said

How can you tell when you are going to be sitting though an absolutely terrible speech? There are a lot of ways, but one sure fire sign is when you see the presenter approaching the podium with a big handful of notes that seem to be exploding from whatever he/she has them barely contained in. As the speaker takes the next five minutes to find the start of their notes, everyone in the audience has a chance to sit and squirm because we all know what’s coming next – complete boredom! What’s interesting is that it’s often not the speaker’s fault, but rather the notes that they are using. If the job of every speaker is to connect with their audience, then notes sure seem to be a big brick wall that stands in the way of accomplishing that goal. Why is this?

Why do people who speak using notes have such a hard time connecting with their audience? The answer, it turns out, is actually pretty simple. When you are standing in front of a live audience and every so often you pause to look down at notes, this really screws up your brain. I mean think about it, there you are having this wonderful conversation with your audience when all of a sudden you stop the conversation, look down and start to read. Then you look back up and while your brain is trying to process what you’ve just read, your mouth opens up and tries to jump right back in where you had left off. If you look down frequently, you are almost certain to screw up your speech eventually.

Having said all of this, it may come as somewhat of a surprise to you that I’m going to tell you that I’m actually a big fan of speaker’s notes. Why you ask? I have seem too many speeches where the speaker was half way through and then for some unknown reason just lost it. If the speaker didn’t have notes, then there was this very long, painful, silence in which the speaker completely shut out the audience while he/she desperately tried to remember both where they were and what came next. Ouch! So I fully believe that every speaker should have a nice outline of their speech with them and lay it on the podium as a sort of insurance policy. If everything goes well, then hopefully the speaker will never have to refer to it. However, in case there is a perfect storm, then there is a lifeboat ready and waiting for the speaker.

Dr. Steve Reagleshas a couple of suggestions: oral writing and oral practice (don’t laugh). When he talks about oral writing he’s really suggesting that you keep four points in mind:

  • Keep it simple: make it so that your audience can easily picture what you are talking about.
  • Tell ’em What You’re Talking About: make sure that you tell your audience what your point is – don’t make them guess based on the material that you’ve presented.
  • Make It Memorable: Be sure to lay in rich details and interesting examples so that your audience can remember what you talked about.
  • Tie It Up!: Make sure that you have ideas that run throughout your entire speech that you can use to tie various sections together and to make a seamless whole.

After you have that taken care of, Dr. Reagles suggests that you practice, practice, practice. He makes the good point that it’s through practice that we are able to lift the words that we write in an outline up and turn them into a verbal performance.

Have you ever lost your way when you were giving a speech? What did you do – were you able to recover? Have you ever seen someone use too many notes? How did they take away from the speaker’s impact? Leave a comment and let me know what you think.