Public Speaking From Notes: Some Tips and Techniques

Among the most common questions we get at the Pincus Group, are those brought about by “podium panic.” That’s what I call the moment a speaker realizes he or she won’t be able to hide behind a lectern or read from a full script. With that discovery comes a lot of questions:  What do I do with my script? How do I stand? And the ubiquitous “What do I do with my hands?”

We tell clients that they are the presentation, not their scripts and nothing brings that home like facing an audience without one.

Know that, the good news is if you are prepared, speaking from notes is going to greatly increase your effectiveness as a speaker. No one in your audience wants to be read to, no matter what the topic. They’ve come to hear what you have to say, not what you have to read. (After all, you could have saved everyone time and bother by just emailing your script if that weren’t the case.) The bad news is, you’re going to have to get over the notion that preparation stops once you get your content down on paper.

Follow some basic guidelines to help you power up your presentation without that script:

  • Always start by determining key messages. Your messages are your port in a storm. Lose your place? Return to port. Wondering if material is relevant? Look at those key messages and decide whether any of your material helps explain or convince us of their validity. If material doesn’t directly do that, leave it aside. This is how you’ll begin to reduce a lot of unnecessary material and get to the essence of why your audience has come to hear you.
  • Reduce notes to key ideas and phrases. Don’t use full sentences on your note cards and don’t fill your notecards with small script. The whole idea here is to get away from just reading to the audience. That process gets much more complicated if you’ve simply transferred an entire script onto small notecards. Instead, focus on larger points with key phrases, using more of an outline reduced to a bulleted form (and numbering your note cards prominently). The idea is to maximize eye contact with an audience and gain some feedback from them. If you see heads nodding in agreement, or faces staring back in thought, you’ll get a cue you’re on the right track.
  • Don’t memorize. You want to practice your talk until you’re comfortable with the general shape and outline, but give yourself the freedom to speak in the moment. No one knows what you meant to say. Meanwhile, by freeing yourself from exact phrasing and even exact order, you’ll have a better opportunity to really connect and give your presentation a flow that’s easier for the audience to understand.
  • Try and leave even the notecards behind. If there’s a small table or surface off to the side you can place your notes on, work toward reviewing your notes periodically rather than holding the notes in your hand. Yes, it takes practice. If you need to return to your notes to check your place, don’t stress. Simply stop talking. Review your notes, and then begin again with your audience. Once you really free yourself from the need to fill every second of time with a scripted phrase, you’ll discover how much your props (notecards) have actually been holding you back. If you need to shorten your presentation to accommodate your ability to stay on track, then do so. It’s well worth it to your audience to get a sense of your passion and knowledge about a subject, then it is to try and follow a technically detailed presentation that’s just read to them.
  • Practice, practice, practice.  Did I mention practice? Nothing will increase your proficiency and the audience’s enjoyment more than having a real sense that you’re not lecturing them but really communicating your ideas for some purpose. When you’re comfortable, it’s going to show, in natural hand movements, in a more relaxed voice, natural pace and more compelling presentation.

Remember, you are the presentation. The rest are merely aides to help you make it.

Aileen Pincus is a communications consultant and President of the Pincus Group, Executive Communications Training. She can be reached at www.thepincusgroup.com

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