How to use notes in a speech or presentation: a guide for nervous speakers


By Emma Serlin
May 20, 2019

Watch any TEDx talk and you’ll see the speaker strolling confidently around the stage, making eye contact with members of the audience and using their arms - their whole bodies even - to add emphasis to their key points.

This ability to deliver a speech assuredly without notes is the holy grail of presenting. But for the majority of people this doesn’t come naturally, it must be learned and practised, and anxieties overcome. Here's how...

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Why it’s better not to use notes when speaking


When a speaker is able to talk without gripping a sheaf of notes, it gives the feeling that they are really in the moment, and sets them up for building the all important connection with the audience. Their ideas seem to emanate from them as if they’re discovering them on the spot and speaking them for the first time (although doubtless they’ve practised many times!). This makes them sound more alive, more authentic.

Notes, when held, can often get between the speaker and their audience like a wall, both literally and metaphorically. When an audience listens to you speak the communication is in real time, your listeners want you to bring them into the moment. They want to exist in the moment with you. You may find that notes can hinder this, they can draw the audience’s eye away, distract them and prevent such a close connection. The energy you’re radiating may be disrupted by paper-based obstacle in your hand.


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Can't lose the notes? Here's what to do instead

This is all well and good, but you may need the security of holding the notes, even if you don't intend to use them. Sometimes just knowing they are there or arms reach can be the difference between feeling like you've got it under control and you want the ground to swallow it up. If that's the case, then keep your notes, it's really not the worst thing (unless it actually is a TED talk, in which case, come and get some coaching!). But seriously, with or without notes, the most important thing to consider when speaking is how to create authenticity and connection with your audience. Yes, for a confident, experienced speaker, this may be through performing ad lib. But if you worry you’ll forget what you have to say, or feel the effects of stage fright creeping up on you, perhaps for you, the security afforded by those notes will actually lead to a better, more engaging performance as you won’t be retreating inside your brain to look for the next line at every turn.

 

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How can you use notes yet still achieve authenticity and connection?

If you decide you’d feel more comfortable with notes then go for it, but here are some tips that will help you use the notes in a way that won’t disrupt the effect of your speech.

1. Hold the notes in the right place.

The problem with notes is that they can create a physical barrier between you and the audience. As long as you’re aware of this it becomes fairly easy to prevent this happening. Either hold them down low or have them on a lectern but – and this bit is important – stand to the side of that lectern, not directly behind it. Allow space for your energy to flow outwards to your audience. Wherever you choose to hold your notes, make sure they’re not directly between you and those you’re speaking to.

2. Use your eyes to emphasise.

We talk often about the importance of using good eye contact when you’re delivering a message. When you have notes, the temptation is to look down at them more than you look at your audience. Making regular eye contact with your audience helps to make sure your message has hit home, but only when you use it correctly. For example, it’s tempting to glance at your notes as you come to the end of the sentence in order to get a hint at what’s coming next. Whereas you should be making that eye contact towards the end to deliver the thought with impact and gauge whether it’s been understood.

3. Try to avoid making verbatim notes.

While it can make you feel better because you know exactly what you will be saying, the danger of a ‘script’ is you’ll be far more likely to read them out as if you’re reading from a book. This will mean not only that you’re more likely to hold your notes up like a wall in front of your audience, but you will find it much harder to deliver your points with passion. The way we write is often very different to the way we talk too - unless you’re a professional writer - therefore delivering written notes verbally can make it harder for your audience to connect with you rather than the words. By reading verbatim notes you’re actually making it harder for your listeners to fully engage. 

4. Be flexible with your notes.

If your audience applauds or laughs, engage with them by pausing, smiling and acknowledging their response. Continue when they’re ready. Or if someone makes a comment or asks a question, be sure to look up at them and respond directly to them, then return to your notes only once you’ve finished addressing the point. Religiously sticking to the notes could make your audience feel left out.

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Your audience > Your notes


The most important relationship in the room is the one between you and the audience, not the one between you and the notes. Make sure that is clear to everyone watching. If you make a good first impression at the beginning of your presentation, it's far easier to maintain engagement throughout, notes or not. 

And be reassured, the more you do this stuff the easier it gets. So practise, take opportunities to speak in front of others and you’ll soon find those notes become simply a few reminders before you are able to ditch them altogether and concentrate on simply connecting.

And that will give you the biggest buzz of all.

 




If you’d like to learn more about how to deliver confident presentations, speeches and pitches so that perhaps you don’t feel so much like you need those notes in front of you, learn more about our Effective Communications course.

Want to take your next presentation from 'ok' to 'outstanding'? Get our free Presentation skills eBook and start seeing instant improvement with these 5 simple tools.

 

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Want to take your next presentation from 'ok' to 'outstanding'?

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