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May 2024
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Good Notes: A Public Speaker’s Best Ally

Use smart and sparse speaking notes—not a script— to maintain a solid connection with your audience.

By Joel Schwartzberg

Many people think creating and delivering a speech automatically entails writing a word-for-word script. They often take this route because they think precise wording is critical, or because they think it will calm their nerves to simply read word one through word 632. But while reading from a pre-written script is standard for prominent events such as conference keynotes, political convention speeches and commencement addresses, in most day-to-day cases it’s a bad idea. Why? For starters it forces you to look at your words instead of your audience. This makes losing your place more likely and certainly more catastrophic. It also instantly dates your presentation and makes you seem less spontaneous—who knows how long ago you wrote it? It diminishes your power to persuade and inspire, because it is harder to read and emote at the same time. And doesn’t it inevitably seem unauthentic—when’s the last time a friend read to you his restaurant recommendation or what she did over the weekend?

You could memorize your speech, but that’s extremely time-intensive and very dangerous. If you forget one line, you’re done. You will also end up twice as nervous and truthfully, you should be. You’re speaking without a safety net.

Given these realities, the best (and easiest) way to stay on point and connect with your audience is putting together and using good notes. Good notes are basically a short-hand cheat sheet of the points you’ll be hitting in your speech, as well as anything you might forget, like a date, a name or a statistic. It should contain only those things you need to remember, not things you already know. And when I say “short-hand,” I mean it. When I review the notes my students prepare for their speeches, the first thing I look for is that they make little sense to me. If I can make a similar speech with their notes, then there’s too much information and likely too many complete sentences.

As with all good cheat sheets, you should rarely need more than a small piece of paper to contain your notes (but please use paper, not your hand, as Sarah Palin once famously did). The days of using stacks of numbered index cards are long gone. Think of your notes like they’re a rock band’s setlist. The setlist isn’t what the band is presenting to the audience; it simply reminds them to deliver the goods and in what order.

Here is a case study. A few years back, the CEO of a furniture-building company—let’s call him Connor—asked me to help him with a 5- to 7-minute “thank you” speech for a humanitarian award. He only knew he needed to say the aforementioned two words but beyond that was a mystery. The first thing I did was disabuse him of the notion that he needed to write a manuscript. Then we had a discussion in which I asked him to write down a few words answering the following questions: Who are the people and organizations you want or are obligated to thank? How does the award connect to your personal mission or passion? Is there a memorable moment that illustrates the work for which you are being honored? Who or what inspires you to create beautiful furniture? What kind of impact do you hope you made?

After Connor wrote his answers down, I looked at him and asked, “Do you think you could speak for roughly 60 to 90 seconds about each of these things?” He said yes, and then—using those very notes—did just that.

His notes looked something like this:

  • Thanks Jim, Kathy, Roger, City Housing. Tremendous work. 
  • Connection to passion—helping less fortunate. (story: meeting Janice) 
  • Favorite moment—being there when Chelsea saw her new home and furnishings. 
  • Inspired by Dad. (story: woodshop class) 
  • My hope: People feel they have real homes. Home is everything.

Connor looked down at his note card quite a bit during that very first speech, but over time and with practice, his notes got smaller and smaller, and his reliance on them diminished to the point where he rarely needed to look down at all. This was only possible because Connor was focusing on points, not words. Not only did that make his notes shorter, but points—not words—are typically what audiences remember about speeches. And points are what you want your audience to take away. After all, what would you rather hear about your speech: “You made a great point” or “You had great words”?

“Think of your notes like they’re a rock band’s ­setlist. The setlist isn’t what the band is presenting to the audience; it simply reminds them to deliver the goods and in what order.”

Some of my clients insist on writing a word-for-word speech at the start, just as a way of getting all of their ideas on paper. I let them but then I have them rewrite the script as notes. Once they can deliver their speeches from the notes, I have them throw away the written-out speech. Just like with Connor, practicing with notes makes the notes smaller and smaller, while the speech gets better and better.

It’s OK to Look at Your Notes, as Long as You’re Just Looking

There’s nothing wrong with looking down at your notes to remind yourself what to say next, but don’t speak while looking at them. Speaking “into your notes” breaks a valuable connection with your audience and throws distracting attention at the notes instead of at you. But if you look up again before you speak, the audience will likely not even remember you looked down in the first place.

Taking time to transition cleanly to and from your notes may feel awkward, but remember that the audience doesn’t mind silence. In fact, because they need more time to digest your points than you need to express them, those pauses may even be helpful. The key idea is this: Give your speech to your audience, not to the notes because, really, your notes couldn’t care less.

Handling the Notes

Almost as important as the content of your notes is how you handle them. Your notes should be on one sheet of paper—preferably half or a quarter of it—and held in one hand at your side. Don’t ball it up, play with it or wave it around, because all those things say, “Look, everyone! I have notes!”

The absolute best place for your notes is not in your hands at all, but on a flat surface, like a table, one step in front of you (never behind you). That way you can refer to them as you need and leave both arms free for gesturing.

Maintaining Engagement is Key

Connor’s speech received plenty of praise from the nonprofit organization honoring him, as well as from a number of audience members. No one thought, “Here’s a guy reading to us from a piece of paper.” They all thought, “Here’s a guy speaking to us from his heart.” The difference between those two approaches is profound in terms of audience engagement and retention.

Whether inside or outside the warm Toastmasters environment, our hope is almost always the same: We want to engage with our audiences, not read to them. We want to spend less time preparing and more time practicing. And we want to increase the odds that the experience will end in triumph, not embarrassment. Writing and using good notes is key to accomplishing every one of those goals. 


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