The big question: notes or no notes?

It’s an on ongoing debate: should you use notes when speaking or not?

After my last talk, I have no doubt at all.  Why?  Because one of the vital aspects of any talk is that you get your message across to the audience; and to get your message across, you can’t afford to omit an important section of your speech.  I should have learned from Ed Milliband, Leader of the Labour Party, who made a glaring omission after forgetting to mention the fiscal deficit at the Labour party conference in Manchester.

As I tried to tell a self-deprecating story about shoulder-charging a pupil in a computer lesson, I too made a glaring omission.  The whole point of the story was that we all have to decide whether to tackle problems or simply ignore the problem and suffer in silence.  I lost the plot and omitted the paragraph that explained how I was tackling my problem and why I had shoulder-charged the young lady!  I may as well let you see the missing paragraph that was essential.

It occurred because the schoolgirl concerned had been drawing graffiti – on the walls/on the desks/anything that didn’t move in fact.  I was not one to suffer in silence and I instructed her to remain behind at the bell.  At the bell she made a beeline for the door but I had a fair turn of speed in my younger days and got there first.  Clatter clatter!  One – nil!  My clumsy demonstration of a textbook soccer manoeuvre was not appreciated by this extremely startled schoolgirl.

I knew I had lost the thread at that point but in stumbling on, I didn’t realise that I had completely failed to explain the reason for my unusal classroom behaviour.  We were well into the drinks and mince pies when this was pointed out, and the written evaluations were also really helpful in pointing out that the audience was puzzled.

I gave my previous storytelling talk on Winston Churchill, UK Prime Minister 1940-1945 and 1951-1955, at an advanced speakers Thistle meeting.  I spoke from the lecturn and had six cards of notes to which I referred frequently.  By doing this I was removing my fear of forgetting the thread of my talk, and concentrating on connecting with the audience.  Evaluations are given orally at Thistle and several people pointed out that I was using pauses effectively, (I think having notes played a big part here as speaking slowly is not my forte), but a most helpful comment was that the notes and lecturn made it seem a bit like a university lecture; point taken, and for my next speech I decided to try without any notes at all.

But I need them – brief notes – on a card – to prevent me from forgetting a complete chunk of speech.  I remember Aideen O’Malley giving a wonderful talk about autism – with a card in her hand which she referred to for a quote, but otherwise hardly at all.  But it was there, and if she had slipped up, she could have referred to it.

A card would have kept me straight.  Then I could have relaxed about my memory and concentrated on connecting with the audience.  I shall give the talk again one day and see if a card improves things; I shall also change the title but that is a different problem.  Don’t get me wrong – I am full of admiration for members who can do their speeches without a single note; but I also think that even on your tenth speech there is a place for notes if you want them.

Bob Ferguson, a Distinguished Toastmaster, points out that three of the greatest speeches of the 20th century were made with notes:

  • John F Kennedy’s “Man to the moon”
  • Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream”
  • Winston Churchill’s “We will fight them on the beaches”

Probably three of the greatest speeches ever made – all of them behind a lecturn without notes!

Ferguson also highlights a speech that Churchill was making in 1914 from memory in the House of Commons.  Churchill lost his way and in the end had to sit down mid-speech.  The press said he would never speak again in public.  Churchill did, but never without having notes available.  If using notes is good enough for Churchill, then it’s certainly okay for the rest of us!

Ferguson gives a useful tip of using flesh-pink cards rather than white cards to prevent the audience being distracted by the flash of white on his hand as it moves – maybe a step too far in my opinion, but his tip of using a music stand below waist height as an aide memoir for a speech map (or props) is interesting because it doesn’t interfere with his engagement or eye contact with the audience.

Is there a right and wrong way?  Not in my opinion.

Paul Bailey, CC


  1. Erick Rainey was giving a speech for world champion Jock Elliot to evaluate at a workshop in Edinburgh last May. There was a disturbance at the back of the room (Erick’s family had just walked in) and Erick momentarily lost his place in the speech. Jock asked him if he had notes with him and strongly suggested that they should be at least carried in a pocket to cover such emergencies.
    As Jock said, as soon as your name is called EVERYTHING is part of your show.

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