Speaking: How to Use Notes Discretely

One of the questions I am continually being asked by aspiring speakers is how to read from notes discretely, so that most of the audience doesn't notice. There are actually quite a few techniques and the best plan is to learn them all so you always have the right solution for the venue.

By far the most effective way to speak is to speak from memory. But even if you have learned your speech very well some notes can be useful in case you suddenly lose track of your thoughts and need a prompt. Simply reading the entire speech sounds very awkward and stilted, though there are ways to make that sound smoother, too.

In most cases I would recommend that people memorize the sequence of points in their talk or presentation and then talk freely about each point. If you are speaking in a second or third language or you are less experienced it is usually more effective to write a complete script and go through that several times to prime your brain with suitable words. After that you can reduce the script to a list of keywords. But what do you do with that list?

USE A VIDEO MONITOR. Whenever you can make sure that there is a video monitor in front of you where you can see it without turning round. This is extremely useful to see which slide is on the screen, and the content of that will remind you what you are talking about if you have a momentary blackout. In some presentation tools you can also send the speaker notes to a separate monitor and use that space to list the key points you want to make. You should not plan reading from the monitor but only using it to jog your memory when it falters.

PLACE PAPER NOTES OUT OF SIGHT. When a monitor isn't available or in case of a monitor failure you should also have a list of key points on paper placed discretely where you can see it but the audience cannot. One classic approach is to have the notes on a high table where you have your laptop, glass of water and clicker. To cover the fact that you are glancing at the notes you can pretend you need a glass of water or "forget" you have a clicker and use the keyboard to advance slides.Another way to "cover" a quick glance at the notes is to look just after you have placed an interesting image on the screen; for a moment everyone will be looking at the screen and not at you.

CONCEAL NOTES ON FLIPCHARTS. If you are planning to use a flipchart to write something you can also conceal notes in plain sight by writing the keywords with a pencil. To the audience the paper will appear to be blank but to the speaker standing right next to it the writing will be readable enough to copy. You can do something similar with a whiteboard, taping a small note to the board with writing big enough for you to read it but too small for the audience to see.

CARRY EMERGENCY NOTES IN POCKET. In any case always carry at least a copy of your notes in one pocket and possibly also a copy of your script in another. Most of the time you will not need them but it is reassuring and calming to know that they are there. In the worst case you can always pull out the notes, refresh your memory and then put them away. Most of the people in the audience will never notice that you did it. In fact you can even use a deck of cards in your hand and most people would never notice. The secret, though, is to glance at the card, put it down and then talk. Don't talk as you read or it becomes obvious.

With plenty of rehearsal and some prepared keyword notes you should be able to make it look like you are talking from the heart and not reciting a memorized script. But if you do need to read from a script then borrow an old technique from newsreaders in the pre-Autocue days: read a piece of text, look up and say the words. Reading head down without eye contact always looks very unprofessional.


Lectures, Workshops, Coaching and Writing

For lectures, workshops, one-to-one coaching and writing about public speaking and other communication topics you can contact Andrew Hennigan by phone on 0046 730 894 475 or 0033 6 79 61 52 81 and by email at speaker.andrewhennigan.com.

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