Speaking Without Notes

Speakers who give their presentations without referring to prepared notes aren’t equipped with superpowers. Here are five things these notes-free speakers do to make speaking without them seem effortless.

When you watch speakers address audiences without relying on any notes— sometimes even leaving the podium to roam among the audience—you may wonder how they do that. Do they have photographic memories? Do they just speak “off the cuff”? Really, there’s no mystery or magic involved here. Let’s look behind the scenes.

First, the no-notes speaker doesn’t think of the speech as a performance, demanding exact repetition of lines like those assigned to an actor. Instead, he or she considers the speech a conversation. And how many times do you need to refer to notes during an ordinary conversation? Similarly, in conversations you don’t feel you are being graded by the listener, or even judged. The two of you are just sharing ideas freely. You trust your words will convey your thoughts accurately.

Second, the speaker without a script operates from a high level of assurance because he has a secret advantage over the audience. It’s this: the speaker (and only the speaker) knows what he intends to say. The audience has no clue about what’s supposed to be said next. What’s the power of this advantage? The speaker relaxes, knowing she can leave out an example, a quotation, a statistic, or a personal incident without anybody being aware of the slipup.

Actually, the speaker won’t label the omission a mistake, because he’s not giving a performance where perfection is expected. He’s simply interacting with the audience, saying what fits at that moment.

Third, realize that in most cases the note-free speaker didn’t get to that level overnight. As a colloquial saying goes, “This isn’t his first rodeo.” Few speakers start out with poise of this caliber. Confidence increases with:

  • repetition
  • positive feedback from audiences
  • presentation skills seminars
  • guidelines from speech coaches and mentors
  • practice sessions with video
  • increasing mastery of the topic

Fourth, in many instances paper notes (pages or index cards) would merely confuse and distract the speaker, and therefore the audience, because he already has his bullet points displayed on the PowerPoint screen. Fortunately, skillful use of PowerPoint gives the impression of being note-free, because the speaker never looks down to locate his next point.

Fifth, the speaker who doesn’t refer to notes does that by visualizing the material, as vividly as though she were looking at last year’s vacation video. To the most accomplished speakers, the content revolves around images, not just words. Like a skilled novelist, she tells about real people and events that captivate the listener’s imagination.

Think back now to one of the most memorable events in your life. Maybe you’ll recall an athletic event—either one you watched or participated in—an act of heroism, a frightening accident, meeting a celebrity, appearing on radio or TV for the first time, getting your driver’s license, bringing your child home from the hospital, or comparable milestones in your life. Consider this: Do you need notes to tell somebody what happened, how you felt, what people said, what lessons you learned? Most likely not.

Clearly, then, the more your material emerges from your most compelling experiences, the freer you are to throw away written props.

Now what do you think? No-notes speakers aren’t doing what’s impossible for the rest of us, are they?

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