Remember learning to ride a bike? You probably started with training wheels. What happened when your parents removed the training wheels? Perhaps you went, wobble, wobble, wobble, splat. The next time the wobble lasted a little longer before the splat, and then maybe by the third or fourth time, you went wobble, wobble and then took off. You were away!
Would you have ever learned to ride a bike if you had kept the training wheels? Unlikely. Training wheels don’t teach you to balance; they just give you a feel for sitting on a bike.
Relying heavily on notes when you are learning to speak publicly is a bit like using training wheels on a bike. You will never be able to deliver a speech without notes if you always read your notes. Unlike training wheels, you may not need to ditch your notes altogether. But you will need to stop reading them!
Why you don’t want to read your speech
Before we look at how to use notes effectively, we will consider why reading your notes is not best practice.
But first a qualification. There is a place for a speech that is read from a script. You may want to read from a script if you are a very important person or at a very important event (e.g., a college inauguration). Reading a prepared script can invoke a sense of gravitas and occasion.
However, the vast majority of public speaking that you do will not justify reading a script. While you should be well prepared, a good public speaker sounds natural and conversational. They sound as if they are fully present and thinking as they speak. And they do not achieve this by reading from a script.
You can’t maintain eye contact when you read
Good public speakers make eye contact with their audience as they speak. They look directly at someone for a few seconds and then move to someone else. They may look up or down as they think, but they mainly look at the audience.
If you are reading from notes, you will be looking down most of the time. Even if you make an effort to glance up and look at someone in the audience periodically, this is likely to be fleeting. If you hold someone’s gaze for too long, you risk losing your place, and so the temptation to look back at your notes is huge.
You will sound like you are reading
The audience can hear if you deliver a speech by reading a script. There are two reasons for this. First, we tend to use more formal language and sentence structures when we write. I can often tell someone is reading when they use terms like ‘consequently’ instead of ‘so’ or ‘nevertheless’ instead of ‘but’ - especially when they do this repeatedly.
Compare these two ways of saying the same thing.
“Consequently, I resolved never to return to Africa, the place of my birth.”
“And so, I decided I would never go back to Africa. I’d never go back to my place of birth. “
The first sounds like something you might write. The second sounds more like spoken language.
Of course, you can write your speech in conversational language. But it is not just the language. When you read a speech, you pause where there is punctuation. But when you talk, you often pause mid-sentence and run sentences together.
Let’s take the second version of our example.
“And so, I decided I would never go back to Africa. I’d never go back to my place of birth.”
If you were reading this sentence, it would probably sound like this:
“And so (pause) I decided I would never go back to Africa (longer pause) I’d never go back to my place of birth.”
But if you were saying this in everyday conversation, it might sound different. Here is one version of how it might sound. You could run the two sentences together without a pause like this:
“And so I decided I would never go back to Africa I’d never go back to my place of birth.”
If you used it pause, it could be in a totally different place like this:
“And so I decided (pause) I would never go back to Africa I'd never go back to my place of birth.
In other words, the cadence or rhythm of conversational speech is often different from a written text read out loud.
“But what about news readers?” you might wonder. News readers read from a teleprompter, but they don’t sound like they are reading. That’s often true, but they have been specifically trained to read to sound conversational. For example, to pause where a person might pause in everyday conversation. Next time you listen to the news, see if you can pick this up.
Sometimes reading is not an option
If you are a nervous public speaker, reading notes will not prepare you for speaking without notes. And there are bound to be times when you have to speak with no time to write out a speech. In fact, most of our ‘public speaking’ is in more informal situations – e.g., at meetings – where we have to articulate our thoughts with limited time to prepare. Being an expert at reading prepared scripts will not help much in these situations.
A note on PowerPoint
Reading from a PowerPoint slide is worse than reading from your notes. Please don’t do it! The audience will read ahead of you and get bored waiting for you to finish. You are adding no value, and you may as well put up the slide and give people a minute to read it!
Alternatively, people put up slides with lots of words and then paraphrase. This is also bad practice because it splits the audience’s attention. They are reading and listening to you and trying to match what they see with what they hear – which is often very difficult.
You need to make it as easy as possible for the audience to follow you. Use graphs and pictures that support your words, and keep the written words on a slide to a minimum.
Can’t I just memorise instead?
If you are about to give the most important speech of your life – for example, a TED talk, I might recommend memorising it. But in almost all other situations, it is a bad idea.
Tim Urban has written an excellent blog article about preparing for a speech. He points out that if you memorise your speech, it will probably sound a bit robotic – like you are retrieving it from your memory – unless you have learned it so well that you are like an actor who has memorised their lines.
Tim says that you need to know your speech as well as you know the words to 'Happy Birthday' for it not to sound memorised. Imagine how long that would take! I'm guessing it is not a good use of your time.
How to use notes to enhance your speech
While you should avoid reading or memorising, a few notes can be very helpful. When you have a large volume of complex information or ideas to communicate, notes can help keep you focused in the moment rather than worrying about what comes next.
Think of your notes as a prompt, not a crutch. It is easy to tell when someone uses their notes as a crutch because they tend to look at them when they tell you something they know well. It is a dead giveaway to see someone look down when they tell you their name or job title. That might sound silly, but I see it all the time!
The first step is to reduce your notes to the bare minimum – headings, bullet points or even pictures if that works for you. The more words you have on the page, the more tempting it will be to read them. It is also harder to find the key points when you write out your whole speech.
The second step is to train yourself not to speak when looking at your notes. When I want to refer to notes, I stop, look at my notes, and then look back at the audience before I start speaking again. It is amazing how often people don’t notice that you even have notes when you do this!
I am struggling to stop relying upon my notes – what can I do?
Consider going ‘cold turkey.’
I delivered many speeches at Toastmasters with limited use of notes, but I still felt that my notes were a crutch. It felt too risky to get up without them!
Even doing an entire speech without referring to my notes was not giving me the confidence that I could get by without them. It was like knowing I could push the button and the training wheels would pop out in an instant.
So, one day I decided to leave the notes behind. To mix metaphors, I decided to ditch the crutches – or leave the training wheels right off the bike.
It was a bit nerve-wracking – even in a safe Toastmasters environment. But it worked. Delivering a speech with no access to notes reassured me that I could do it. Now I almost always use notes, but I use them appropriately because I know I am not relying on them. If I accidentally left my notes at home, I would not panic.
Reading a speech is not true public speaking - it is reading a speech. And I don't recommend it unless you are totally new to public speaking or you are delivering an important written address.
One of the secrets of public speaking is that the best speakers are well prepared but have mastered the art of looking like they are speaking impromptu. To put this another way, public speaking is a performance - although you don't want to make it look like one!
It is OK to have a few notes, but reading from a script won't teach you to deliver a speech without reading. It has some uses - e.g. it allows you to practice voice projection - but, like training wheels, these are limited.
I teach a public speaking course at the local high school. The girls write beautifully crafted speeches and then want to read them. The hardest part of my work with them is convincing them to talk to us, not read.
The training wheel analogy works well with these girls. Most of them can remember learning to ride a bike and understand why it was necessary to ditch the training wheels.
Expect a few wobbles as you start talking to the audience instead of reading to them. But stick with it, and your speaking will improve immensely.
Article written by Catherine Syme
If you liked this article and would like to read more, please join our mailing list and we will send you a free eBook with our five most popular articles in 2022. You can unsubscribe at any time.
I get huge satisfaction from seeing the relief, pride, and even joy that people experience when they complete a course and reflect on the progress they have made. See what others say for some inspiring stories.