Whether you’re speaking for business or in a community setting, it helps to know the points you want to make in advance.
And once you’ve done that thinking, speaking notes will help you remember what you planned to say.
Lots of people have been sold on the idea that speaking without notes makes you look more professional. But when public speaking notes are “just right” — when they have the exact information you need — you can speak with calm assuredness.
And there’s nothing more professional than that!
What Are “Just Right” Public Speaking Notes?
IMHO, they’re a mix of four possibilities:
- Exact words, for when you need to say something precisely
- Bullet points, for when you need to include specific details
- Prompts, for when you just need to remember what comes next
- Images, if reading isn’t your strength or you prefer to “read” pictures
The key is to mix and match these categories when you’re creating speaking notes, so that you have the right level of notes (the right amount of information) for every point you’re making:
Use Exact Words for Things that Have to Be Said Precisely
Sometimes, every word counts. For example, if I’m speaking to women lawyers, I will make the following point using these exact words:
When the U.S. Supreme Court decided, in 1873, that women should not be allowed to practice law, the Chief Justice wrote: “The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life.”
Why would I say that exactly as I wrote it? Because I want this point to be clear, concise, but hard-hitting — and using pre-determined words (rather than searching for them in real time) let’s me focus on my delivery instead of on which words I’m going to say.
Use Bullets When You Just Need to Remember the Details
Then there are times when it doesn’t matter what words you use, but it’s important to not leave anything out. In this case, you probably need bullet points. If I want to tell you how to drive from Brooklyn, NY to my brother’s house in Brookline, MA, my speaking notes might look like this:
- Whitestone to Hutch
- 95 to 91 to 84 (Rein’s)
- 90 to 9 to Chestnut Hill Ave.
Why are these notes so terse? Because — even if I end up telling you 15 things about how to drive this route, or go into a long discussion of what to have for lunch when you stop at Rein’s Deli — these notes contain everything I need to be sure I haven’t left out a crucial step. (And remember, these are my notes. Yours would look totally different, because making notes “just right” means making them just right for you!)
Use Prompts When You Only Need to Know What Comes Next
If you’ve read my public speaking workbook, Speak Like Yourself…No, Really!, you might remember a story about how I used the Instant Speech format to persuade my then-16-year-old daughter to never again come home alone on the New York City subways at midnight. (Yes, she was persuaded, at least for a few months.)
What notes do I need to tell this story as part of a keynote speech or workshop?
Well, since I can tell it in my sleep (I’ve told it often!), I don’t need bullets to remind me of what to include, and I definitely don’t need to write the whole thing out. All I need is a cue word or phrase to remind me of where the story goes in my talk, like this:
Use Images Instead of Speaking Notes if You’re Primarily Visual
You may be aware that there are many types of intelligence, and one of them is visual. If you prefer to get information from images, try creating a “storyboard” instead of a script.
A storyboard is very similar to a scaled-down graphic novel or comic book. A story told in pictures gives you all the benefits discussed above except how to say something word for word. (For the rare times you need to do that, write out your words in a VERY LARGE FONT. Then practice them out loud at least 10 times so you’re not actually reading when you give your talk, just using them as a reminder.)
If You Don’t Know How Much Information You Need, Start with Too Much and Then Cut Back
Often — and particularly when I’ll be presenting new ideas — I start by writing everything out. Then, as I practice (over and over again, out loud), I gradually cut out the parts of my notes that I don’t need. I’ll probably need most of my speaking notes the first time I practice out loud. But pretty soon, as the ideas start to sink in (that’s called internalizing), I’ll find that there are whole sections I don’t need to read, where I can just use bullets or a prompt.
Cutting back on excess words doesn’t have to be an elaborate or time-consuming process, because you don’t have to constantly rewrite your notes. For example:
- If you’ve written a few paragraphs, but now just need a few bullets, take a yellow highlighter, and highlight the words you want to “bullet point.” (Now you can ignore all the other words around them.)
- If there’s an idea that you want to be sure to deliver as written, put a big star in the left margin and you’ll remember to read it. (I use a purple felt-tip pen for this.)
- If you wrote a paragraph of text but now only need to see a prompt, cross out the paragraph (literally put an X through it) and write your prompt in the left margin. (There’s my purple felt-tip pen again.)
See? Not hard! And for every minute you spend updating your speaking notes, you’ll get a big payoff in the comfort and confidence you feel while presenting.
There’s Only One Place Where Speaking Notes are “Just Wrong”
As you can see, I’m a big fan of using speaking notes — but there is one place that they just don’t belong, and that’s in your slides. So…
Never put your speaking notes on the screen!
- Put them in a Word document (here’s how to format it).
- Put them on 3 x 5″ cards.
- Put them in a chart, diagram, or series of pictures.
- You can even put them in PowerPoint’s presenter notes, although that’s an awkward solution that keeps you tethered to your computer.
But please don’t put notes that are only intended for you on slides that should benefit your audience.
Get rid of the words. Put up a great picture.
And let your speaking notes truly be “just right” for everyone!