The Notes Debate

In Project 3 of the Toastmasters Competent Communicator manual, we are told “Strive not to use notes.” With this one statement and whether they intended to or not, Toastmasters International has entered the growing debate among speakers around the world; the debate over whether we as speakers should use notes during our presentations. New speakers in Toastmasters are almost always tethered to their notes and as they gain more confidence, they become less dependent on them. The debate comes into Toastmasters at Project 3 as the fifth bullet point under “Your Assignment.”

There are two sides to this debate. One says that not using notes is a relatively recent development in public speaking. The proponents of using notes point out some of the best speakers in history used notes. Abraham Lincoln Held an envelope with bullet notes written on it during the Gettysburg Address, Winston Churchill was famous for writing “Stage directions” to himself on a copy of his speech, even today politicians and TV personalities use Teleprompters.

Opponents of using notes give us two very good reasons. The first and, as it would seem, the main reason is that it hinders the speaker from making eye contact with the audience. After all, if you’re looking at your notes, then you’re not making eye contact and eye contact is essential to connecting with your audience. The second reason is notes give the impression that you have not prepared for the presentation.

Taking the second reason first, let me ask the obvious question. If you don’t use notes and you get stuck, how prepared do you look then? A reader may say, “If you prepared enough, you wouldn’t get stuck,” This is a very fare point, but it’s not always the case. Unforeseen circumstances do happen. This is the reason why I take a third position in this debate; the Both-And position.

My opinion is that we should “Strive” to not use notes, but we shouldn’t kill our public speaking reputation over it. Commit your bullet points to memory. There are many cool ways you can do it. I came across this video with Mike Michaelowicz witch shows you one way to memorize a speech in five minutes. After you’ve committed your speech to memory, practice it as much as possible. This second point becomes difficult for those of us who are not retired and have families, so I’ve added one more step. Unless you are absolutely sure that you have all of the bullet points down cold, write them out in large print, so you can read them from about six to eight feet away. The bullet points should take up a maximum of two sheets that you can lay side by side on a lectern or table. Then you can simply look down for a second or two to find your place and move on with your presentation. One important point to remember is that with the large print, you have no reason to draw attention to your notes by picking them up.

We as Toastmasters strive to not use notes at all, but the fact is if we need them, we need them and it’s OK as long as we use them correctly. If you follow the simple instructions above, you’ll be able to keep the all-important eye contact with your audience and also have the confidence you need to remember your speech.




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