It’s an on-going debate: should you use notes when speaking or not?

Those who aspire to the status of top keynote speakers say notes should not be used as it’s unprofessional, but many argue the case for having prompts or an aide memoir available.

However the reality is – it all depends on WHY you are giving the speech in the first place.

At one end of the spectrum there are business speakers. At the other there are the professional speakers.

Professional speakers are those who speak for a living – in other words it’s their profession.

The business speakers, however, may also do a considerable amount of speaking but this is to support their profession rather than being and end in its own right. The business speaker will typically cover people in business who have to speak on project updates, sales presentations, team briefings etc., The business speaker also includes politicians, preachers and anyone else who speaks regularly as a part of their job.

Many speakers will be somewhere between the two extremes. They may have a principal subject, perhaps based on their specialist skills on which they speak regularly, as well as having to undertake many ad hoc presentations.

However to highlight the relevant differences I’ll focus on the two extremes of the spectrum.

To use or not to use notes...
To use or not to use notes…

There are three major differences between the professional speaker and the business speaker:


1)    Number of speeches

Many professional speakers have one speech. It may be customised, but in principal it is one speech that they perform many times. Some profess to have three or four speeches but generally there’s one that dominates their business. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy in that potential clients are likely to hear your best speech and want the same. It’s only when you have a history with your clients that you tend to get the freedom to branch out.

However Business Speakers have a different speech every time. That may be about the changing status of their project, a speech for a special event or a different political issue and therefore they have to deal with new material almost every time out.


2)    The Amount of Preparation Time

When professionals develop their keynote speech they spend a lot of time and effort doing it. The speech may be the result of many months of research, there will definitely be a considerable amount of speech writing time, rehearsal time and probably a number of run outs in front of friendly audiences to check the flow and get some feedback before they start delivering it commercially.

The business speaker has no such luxury. They have to deliver speeches at short notice on new subjects and (particularly in the case of politicians) the speech may be researched and written by others so that their total preparation time is reading the speech in the car on the way to the event!


3)    This then brings us to the question of notes. 

The professional speakers, having spent a long time researching and developing a speech which they then perform many times over, clearly have no need for notes. Why would they? The repetition alone will help the speech stay clearly in their min

The business speaker however, often has little preparation and almost no repetition. S/he clearly needs notes and rightly so. Who would think it’s valuable use of the Prime Minister’s or senior business leader’s time to sit down to try and remember a speech just so they don’t have to use notes. It’s not, and we’ll often see the Prime Minister go to a function with a sheaf of notes that have been prepared for him, probably with one read through. And yet when he performs he does so excellently with brief reference to his notes and no loss of engagement with the audience.

So, for me, it seems that the debate is not about whether speakers should use notes or not. It’s about under what circumstances do we expect speakers to use notes?  Given that we could all be in a position to use notes if the circumstances are right, then it also seems logical that some effort should be given to learning how to use notes effectively so that we have a choice – and can deliver fluently, whatever we choose.

When I have to use notes I either use small flesh pink card (so the audience doesn’t see the flash of white on my hand as it moves) or I use a speech map (rather like a mind map) which I put on a music stand set at under waist height. That way I can see my aide memoir clearly but it doesn’t interfere with my engagement or eye contact with the audience. I also put small props on my music stand so I’m not retreating to the back corners of the stage, where the lecterns normally are, to retrieve my visual aids.

In my opinion, we should all learn to speak well with notes and learn to work without them where appropriate. Joining a public speaking group, like Toastmasters International, is a great place to build the skills of speaking both with and without notes. A good group will also teach you the art of impromptu speaking in case you ever get stuck on the stage without your words!

Think of the great speakers of the last century: John F Kennedy’s “Man to the Moon” speech; Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream”; Winston Churchill’s “We will fight them on the beaches”. Probably three of the greatest speeches ever made – all of them behind a lectern with notes!

Great platform skills can undoubtedly enhance a presentation but ultimately it is the content that makes the speech valuable. I know a top keynote speaker who often has an aide memoir on the table with his water. He reckons that the speaker’s fees are based on the value he imparts to the audience and how they go on to use that information in their business, so he feels he has a duty to make sure everything is right and not to worry about whether he has to, occasionally, look at a note to ensure he includes all his key points.


Still not convinced?

In 1914 a young Winston Churchill was making a speech from memory in the House of Commons. He lost his way and like most speakers who memorise their words went back and tried to repeat the same sentence in the hope the rest of the words would come. But they didn’t. In the end he had to sit down mid-speech and the papers said he was humiliated and would never speak again in public. Thankfully he did, but never without having notes available.

If using notes is good enough for Churchill, then it’s certainly OK for the rest of us.


About the Author

Bob Ferguson is a Distinguished Toastmaster, three times UK and Ireland champion of Toastmasters International and professional keynote speaker.

About Toastmasters International

Toastmasters International is a nonprofit educational organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of meeting locations. Headquartered in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, the organization’s membership exceeds 292,000 in more than 14,350 clubs in 122 countries. Since 1924, Toastmasters International has helped people of all backgrounds become more confident in front of an audience. There are over 250 clubs in the UK and Ireland with over 7000 members. To find your local club: Follow @Toastmasters on Twitter.




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