When you’re speaking before an audience, you have two options: either you speak from your notes or speak from memory. There are advantages and disadvantages to each, though.
The pros of speaking from your notes are the immediate help you get if you forget what to say, a more structured presentation, and the reduced chances of going over the time limit. The cons of speaking from your notes are the difficulty to establish rapport with your audience, the increased risk of not sounding natural, and the increased risk of loss of interest of the audience.
Let’s look at each of these one by one in this article.
Pros of Speaking from Your Notes
1. Immediate help if you forget what to say
When you have your notes with you, you're more confident when you get on stage. Why? Well, it wouldn't really matter if you forgot what to say then and there. You can just as easily whip out your notes, check where you are, and then pick it up from there.
This presupposes, of course, that your notes are easily understandable. That means that if you do decide to bring notes with you, you need to make sure they’re not chunks of text you’ll have a difficult time reading if you suddenly forget what to say.
If you’re using note cards, according to Howcast, you need to make sure as much as possible that you only have bullet points in your outline. Each bullet point should include a summary of what you want to discuss there. Check out Howcast’s video featuring TJ Walker on other tips when using note cards during your speech:
You can even highlight some important words in your notes so if you do forget what you were supposed to say, the keywords will pop out from the page and you’ll remember what’s next in your outline.
2. More structured presentation
When you speak from your notes, it’s easy to see why you’ll have a more structured presentation. After all, those notes you have were prepared beforehand. That means you must have already taken into account the flow of your presentation when you wrote those notes. Your notes, then, have the correct flow, too.
So what if you have a more structured presentation, you ask? Well, with a structured presentation, you can get your message across better. And when you get your message across better, your audience is happy, of course.
3. Reduced chances of going over the time limit
This last point in this section is related to our previous point. Since your presentation is more structured, it follows that you can get across important points in the least amount of time possible. If you were given a time within which you should have completed your speech, that’s just perfect. That means you get to finish your speech within the time limit. You’re happy and your audience is happy, too. You may even have more time for the question and answer portion, which many members of your audience, I’m sure, are looking forward to.
So, we talked about the pros of speaking from your notes. Let’s talk about the cons.
Cons of Speaking From Your Notes
1. Difficulty to establish rapport with the audience
The thing about speaking from your notes is that you can end up relying too much on them. And when that happens, well, you tend to forget you’re actually speaking before an audience. You end up having a monologue instead. When that happens, you no longer establish rapport with your audience.
According to The Buckley School, rapport is very important because it paves the way for your audience to listen to you. If your audience perceives you as approachable, they are more likely to be receptive to what you have to say. Rapport is important, in short, because it helps you convey your message in the first place.
2. Increased risk of not sounding natural
When you speak from your notes too frequently, you end up not sounding natural at all. That’s an issue because it can erode your audience’s perception of you.
Perhaps upon taking the stage, you were thought of as a subject matter expert in a field, but due to being overly tied to notes and sounding unnatural, that viewpoint changes in the minds of audience members. When your audience starts perceiving you as not an authority, you can’t expect to convey your message effectively anymore as mentioned in my previous article. That brings us to point number 3.
3. Increased risk of loss of interest of the audience
If your audience starts to perceive you less as an expert in the subject matter you’re discussing and more of a peer, that’s a problem. Remember, the reason the audience took time to hear you speaking was that they wanted to learn something new from an expert.
If you just read your notes on marketing, for example, they’ll think you don’t have a good grasp of the subject matter and therefore have nothing new to bring to the table. The logical conclusion for them is this: Why else should they listen to you?
Now that we know both the pros and cons of speaking from your notes, it’s time to determine which is the better option for you.
Which is better: Speaking Or Not Speaking From Your Notes?
Both. Speak from your notes if you get lost in the middle of your speech. Don’t speak from your notes if you remember what you have to say.
Let me explain.
A speech is not just a one-minute thing. It’s an entire event that encompasses minutes, even hours depending on the venue. So, if for the first few minutes you remember what you have to say to your audience, that’s not an assurance you’ll remember everything you have to say for the entire duration of the speech. After 30 minutes, for example, you might end up forgetting the keywords you memorized the night before or forget what comes next after a topic. It is in these situations that speaking from your notes would make sense as an insurance policy.
In other words, use a mixture of speaking and not speaking from your notes. Only speak from your notes when it’s absolutely necessary.
Speaking From Your Notes: Best Practices
When you do get stumped in the middle of your speech and you need to refer to your notes so you can remember where to pick up right where you left off, you need to follow some best practices so you don’t end up having a monologue and losing your audience along the way.
Here are some of those best practices:
- Once you remember what you have to say after looking at your notes, stop looking at your notes and speak naturally again.
- When looking at your notes while speaking, make sure you’re still conscious of what you’re doing. Be conscious of the fact that there’s an audience listening so you can’t just talk to yourself.
- If you have to look at your notes for long because you really can no longer remember anything you’re supposed to say, make eye contact with your audience while you’re speaking from your notes. Don’t bury yourself in those notes.
- If you still can’t remember anything you’re supposed to say, and you feel like you’re already relying too much on your notes, just read the next bullet point from your note and then explain that bullet point in your own words.
- When speaking from your notes, use hand gestures as much as possible as well.
The key is to be aware of what’s happening around you all the time. If you’re speaking from your notes and you see some members of your audience looking at their phones, it might be time to do some improvisation or engage your audience with a question.
Notes during public speaking events can come in handy. They can give you immediate help when you suddenly get stumped in the middle of your speech, help you give a structured presentation, and ensure that you don’t go over the time limit allotted for you.
However, when used in excess, speaking from your notes can yield disadvantages as well. You might end up relying too much on your notes that it becomes impossible to establish rapport with your audience. You run the risk of not sounding natural and of therefore eroding the audience’s perceived authority of you. And number three, you run the risk of losing your audience’s interest and not getting your message across after that erosion of perceived authority.
As the speaker, then, you need to know how to strike the perfect balance of speaking from notes and not speaking. View each of them as things that complement each other. So, if you’re not speaking from your notes and you suddenly forget what you have to say, you use that speaking from your notes to address that limitation. Or if you were speaking from your notes and you suddenly see that your audience is losing interest, you no longer speak from your notes.
In other words, use one to address the limitations of the other. Do it this way and your public presentation will be a success.
For more resources to develop your public speaking skills while you are in the comforts of your own home, please check the articles Online Resources for Public Speaking and Where Can I Learn Public Speaking. If you would like to leverage the best presentation software for your next big speaking engagement please read the article 'Best Presentation Technology tools'.