Speaking Without Notes

This week I went to a preview performance of ‘The National Trust Fan Club’ by comedy performer Helen Wood prior to the show’s Edinburgh Festival run. Public Speaking without Notes

The show is an energetic, light-hearted romp around one hundred National Trust venues. There is also much talk about gift shops, tea shops and cream teas. There’s lots of humour and anyone who’s ever visited NT properties will identify with the content.

But what impressed me most about Helen’s performance was the way she remembered all the words! She talked non-stop for an hour and a quarter without the obvious use of any prompt or notes. When I speak to groups I talk for around 45 minutes, 90% of that time without looking at notes. However, I do have four index cards which contain quotes that I read to get the wording correct. I also have the comfort blanket of an A4 sheet containing a list of bullet points which I can glance at, should my mind go blank and I forget which section comes next (rarely happens – touch wood!). Helen had none of this but she did reel off dates, names and statistics.

So, what’s the best way of minimising the use of notes during a talk?

  • Do NOT learn the whole speech off-by-heart. Doing this can mean your delivery will lack emotion and if you lose your place, it can be difficult to pick up the thread again.
  • Use a list of bullet points to provide a pathway through the speech. If you will be using a lectern, these can be typed onto a sheet of A4. If the notes will be held in your hand, use index cards because they are less obvious than waving a piece of A4 around.
  • Memorise the gist (not the exact wording) of what you will say to expand each bullet point. The actual words you use may vary each time you deliver the speech. This gives you the ability to more easily tailor the speech if time requirements change. Plus you are less likely to panic if you forget a sentence or two.
  • Practise! It’s time-consuming but always leads to a better performance.

Public Speaking for Absolute BeginnersThere are more tips on all areas of public speaking in Public Speaking for Absolute Beginners.


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  1. #1 by juliathorley on July 16, 2019 - 6:38 am

    I’m getting better at speaking without reading every word, but I still need my script in my hand, just in case. I went to a talk at our local art gallery last week, where a chap spoke for an hour without any notes and he didn’t stumble once. It was very impressive. Not only that, but he also maninpulated images on screen with a clicker and a laser pointer. I heard someone else say how good he was, and attributing his success to the fact that he ‘spoke to the slides’. Then on Saturday, at a spoken word event, it struck me how impressive it was to watch/listen to those performers who knew their poems off by heart, especially the slam poets. They were incredible.

    • #2 by Sally Jenkins on July 16, 2019 - 11:27 am

      No notes means better connection with the audience, through eye contact, facial expression, gestures etc. Not easy to dump the notes though! But if it’s a talk you’ll be giving a lot, it’s probably worth putting in the rehearsal time to thin the notes down as far as possible. Easier said than done with so many things competing for our time …

  2. #3 by lynnforthauthor on July 16, 2019 - 1:48 pm

    As an ex lecturer I often spoke for a lesson without notes, especially if I got carried away with enthusiasm ….but they were always there as my security blanket if I forgot the sequence of ideas. .And this was in the old days before PowerPoint slides. How I would have loved slides instead of scribbling on the board with my increasingly scruffy and always rushed writing. But this was always in front a class that knew me so I could confess if I’d forgotten something, not before a professional paying audience. Now I’m much more rigorous when i give my author talks .

    • #4 by Sally Jenkins on July 16, 2019 - 2:06 pm

      I guess that the experience of regularly lecturing must have given you some techniques for holding in your head what you want to talk about, Lynn. But it must have been such hard work talking for that length of time each day!

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