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How to Deliver a Speech … Without Notes

By William Neuman, CL, ACG


You just gave your fourth speech and you’re still using notes. Maybe it was a great speech; you might have even received a ribbon for “Most Improved” or “Best Speaker.” Could it have been better? Absolutely! If you review the instructions in your Toastmasters manuals, they encourage you to deliver your speeches without referring to notes.

Why is that so important? There are several reasons. Eye contact, rhythm, confidence and connection with the audience are all affected when you read your speech. And you’re probably not going to get far in speech contests if you have to rely on written notes.

Is memorization the answer? No. It is much harder than you might think to memorize a seven-minute speech. I have given 53 speeches without notes, and only one was memorized—and that was the worst speech I have ever delivered. I should not have even tried. I delivered it with so many awkward pauses as I fumbled, and tried to recover, that I failed to notice that the red timing light had come on. When the timer began frantically waving the dreaded red card, I knew I was running out of time. I spoke the next two sentences so fast that I confused everyone. And then I abruptly stopped speaking. Disaster.

So how do you do it? Here are some ideas.
1. Decide on a subject.
2. Write down a working title.
3. Jot down the key points of your speech.
4. Reduce each point to one word.
5. Put the words in logical order so that the speech flows with a rhythm that makes sense.

Each word will become a “trigger” that will remind you of each point you want to discuss in your speech. If you hear a short story you can pretty well repeat that story just about the way you heard it, not word-for-word, but in a way that makes sense. Just remember six or seven key words, each of which will serve to remind you, collectively, of your speech “story.” If you try to speak about more points than that, your speech will confuse many of your listeners.

Still not convinced that you can speak without notes? Let me issue a challenge. Think of it as an extended version of Table Topics. I will come up with a few words that I believe you will immediately be able to tell a five-minute story about.

Here they are: Cinderella and Robin Hood.

Can you do it? Of course you can, if you know the stories. Even though you haven’t memorized the stories word-for-word, you can summarize each one without difficulty.

Know the stories that make up your next speech, and let the trigger words remind you of the stories. You’ll be able to deliver your speech—without notes—and then collect the Best Speaker ribbon.