Notes or Not?

In Jonathan Swift’s famous novel, Gulliver’s Travels, the hero finds himself at one point in his journey on the Isle of Lilliput where the miniature, palm-sized inhabitants tie him up and make him captive to their whims.

When speaking in public, we sometimes find ourselves tied up by another kind of Lilliputian, our notes. Rather than establishing and maintaining eye contact with our audiences, we fumble with printed notes in our hands or on a lectern. From an audience viewpoint it’s as if the speech is being delivered to a miniature, imaginary audience, on a small island of paper, rather than to a live audience, in front of us in real space. No wonder speakers lose their place, train of thought, and often their audience in such ineffective moments.

There is, of course, no law that says speeches must be delivered free of notes. Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke from manuscripts. But these exceptions should not checkmate the value of note-free delivery. We need to be free from the land of Lilliputian literacy – our printed notes – and to learn the power of orality. When we free ourselves from notes, we discover the exciting power of real speech. Our purpose ought to be to engage our audience in real space through the electric possibilities of artful, live speech, using gestures, eye contact and other body language to breathe life into our words. 

The Tied-Up Effects of Excessive Use of Notes
Why do notes leave us “tied up” like Gulliver in Swift’s novel? To understand the problem we must remember that speaking with notes generates a complex mental juggling act. Excessive notes create a five-way inter-relationship between notes, eyes, audience, mind and time. We force our eyes to shuttle between our printed notes and a live audience in front of us. At the same time our mind must smoothly manage ideas, and in fractions of a second communicate them by voice, gesture and movement.

If the ideas are clear on the page but not in our mind, notes become a primary reason speech falters. When speakers who are heavily dependent upon notes shift their eyes from audience to page, they often end up tongue-tied. Audience attention moves forward, while the mind – and speech – pause, backslide and trip up the tongue as our eyes search for our lost place...on the paper. That’s when our vacant or vocalized pauses – ands, ahs, you knows, ums, wells, stuttering, false starts and repetitions elbow in between words. My former Army drill sergeant had a good line about it: “The tongue gets in front of the eye teeth so you can’t see what you’re saying.”

Not only do notes impede speech, tying up tongues, they also impede movement, leaving us, like Gulliver, bound to our immediate space. Excessive notes may tie us to the lectern. Sometimes, we become blind to available “stage” space, which could intimately connect us with our audience. In psychological terms, many of these problems stem from a kind of oral/ literate schizophrenia, because we force ourselves to deliver a speech trapped by competing modes of communication – reading, writing and speaking. Speaking calls for a singular transformation of writing into oral skills. Unless we escape Lilliput – the miniature island of written notes – and move into the enlarged world of audience, we risk being imprisoned by writing instead of freed by speaking.

Soaring Free from Lilliput to Our Real Audience
Your personal commitment to being a note-free speaker is what will fuel your journey from Lilliput to the realm of effective delivery. Like most achievements in life you’ll get to your destination by desire, planning and persistence. As with other personal goals, the goal of note-free delivery may simply be one action away: writing it down. Here’s one version: “My speaking to audiences is highly professional, characterized by intimate eye contact, effective gestures and dynamic movement, free of notes.” By imagining the goal as already accomplished and remaining committed to that goal, we eventually realize the liberating solo experience of note-free speech.

                    “Unless we escape Lilliput – the miniature island of written notes – and move into the
                    enlarged world of audience, we risk being imprisoned by writing instead of freed by speaking.”

As a pilot, I still remember the day I first soloed. The instructor stepped out of the Hughes helicopter and said, “Take it around on your own.” It was like the exhilarating feeling a child experiences when first jumping off the high board at the swimming pool. Speaking without notes can feel equally liberating, like soloing. Our written speech, which is akin to an instructor, is no longer necessary when the printed speech becomes part of us, imprinted within mind, gestures and movement, allowing our speaking to soar free of notes.

On the journey to this goal, two effective strategies can help: oral writing and oral practice.

Oral Writing. Any writing records words upon a media surface, such as paper or computer screen. But speechwriting is designed to appeal to ear rather than eye. Oral writing cultivates a more overt clarity of organizational verbal style and structure. All good writing is clear, but with speech this virtue has auditory disadvantages. If audience members were merely reading our speech, they could stop at any point of misunderstanding and re-read to clarify.

But our listeners are not reading a printed script! They’re hearing an oral message, delivered once! Our words are unavailable to the audience except at the moment of utterance. So the spoken message must be absolutely clear the first time an audience hears it. There is no second chance to be heard. So, how do we write a speech that is clear the first time it is heard?

  • KISS Factor. Write words that are easily fixed in mind and memory. Keep sentences concrete, simple and direct.
  • Say it again. Promote speech clarity through repetition on a macro and micro level. The familiar advice is: 1) Tell your audience – in the introduction – what you plan to tell them; 2) Tell them – in the body – what you told them you were going to tell them; and 3) Tell them what you told them – in the conclusion. This keeps the audience continually aware of speech ideas because they are repeated throughout the speech. Conversely, it also makes speech structure clear to the speaker, eliminating the need for notes.
  • Form and Function. A speech crafted with memorable structure further serves speaker memory when supported by rich, concrete detail, interesting examples, anecdotes and vivid stories. Stories are always memorable, allowing speaker and audience to experience them.
  • Keep it together! Often, a speech can be carefully constructed with repetitive support patterns that link to story. For example, stories can be “chained” throughout a speech, intermingled – when appropriate – with statistics and expert testimony. Like recurring, multi-colored strands of a braid, the repetitive sequence encourages note-free recollection. For example, a three-point speech might exhibit this easily learned pattern of support:

                       I. Major Point #1 
                            A. Statistic 
                            B. Expert testimony. 
                            C. Story 
                      II. Major Point #2 
                            A. Statistic 
                            B. Expert testimony 
                            C. Story 
                     III. Major Point #3 
                            A. Statistic 
                            B. Expert testimony 
                            C. Story

Parallel phrasing, another form of repetition, aids audience hearing and speaker memory. Jesse Jackson’s 1984 “Rainbow Coalition” speech illustrates the power of repetition on a sentence level. “America is more like a quilt: many patches, many pieces, many colors, many sizes, all woven and held together by a common thread.” The line is easy to remember, because of both parallel wording and vivid sensory images.

By avoiding data dumps of hard-to-process complex facts and statistics, you’ll soon discover the freedom from notes. While these and other writing strategies can empower you to engage in note-free delivery, the most important advice is to allow plenty of time for verbal practice!

Verbal Practice. Carmine Gallo, in 10 Simple Secrets of the World’s Greatest Business Communicators, advises speakers to “toss the script” and “rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.” This conventional wisdom echoes through the millennia. Roman orator Cicero recounted that Demosthenes, when asked for the three most important qualities in an orator, replied, “Delivery! Delivery! Delivery!” And Cicero implies that it was “by practice[ing]” his delivery that Demosthenes, despite many speech impediments, became the most famed speaker of his day. Demosthenes’ wisdom affirms that practice is what makes speaking effective. A speech begins in the domain of pen or computer and becomes a draft only after a messy, labor-intense revision. But a speech in draft form is not yet a speech in “craft” form until it is in our mind, freed from the page. The speaker’s challenge is to convert a speech draft into speech “craft,” and to make it fly as a live verbal performance. And this too is a labor-intensive process, which novice speakers often overlook.

The process includes embodying words, moving them from the flat pages where they are structured back into our mind, where the seed ideas began. We need to impress the ideas upon our memory and speech mind. While a speaker’s outline jogs memory, it is disciplined practice of the speech, silently in our mind and out loud, a process that may take hours, that frees us from the imprisoning nature of notes. Many professional speakers agree. Jack Valenti, the late president of the Motion Picture Association of America, said, “Speaking without notes is the most powerful form of communication.” 

Ties that Bind: Speech Drafting and Speech Craft
As speakers, we are, like Gulliver, on our own kind of journey – a journey to improve speaking. If, in our goal to become better speakers, we discover ourselves note-bound in Lilliput, the way to note freedom comes to us when we follow these steps. When we connect with our audience by freeing ourselves from notes and by establishing eye contact, then we’ve escaped, just as Gulliver escaped from Lilliput. 

Steve Reagles, Ph.D., DTM is a member of Mankato Toastmasters, B-Town Toastmasters (Minnesota) and the National Speakers Association. Contact him at