Post written by Paul Bailey CC

Paul (L) -3rd place at Waverley's Humorous Speech Contest 2014

Paul (L) -3rd place at Waverley’s Humorous Speech Contest 2014

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

After my talk last week at Waverley Communicators , 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 who made a glaring omission after forgetting to mention the fiscal deficit at the Labour party conference in Manchester.

At the meeting, 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 realize that I had completely failed to explain the reason for my unusual classroom behaviour. We were well into the drinks and mince pies, at the break, when this was pointed out, and the written evaluations were also really helpful in pointing out that the audience was puzzled.

I gave my last talk from the Storytelling manual on Churchill at a meeting of Thistle Speakers (Advanced Speakers) hosted by Capital Communicators; I spoke from the lectern and had six cards of notes to which I referred fairly 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 done orally and in a round robin style at Thistle and several people pointed out that I was using pauses effectively, (I think having notes played a big part here because speaking slowly is not my forté).

But a most helpful comment was that using the notes and lectern made it seem a bit like a University lecture; point taken, and last night 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 her wonderful talk about autism at Waverley  – 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 10th 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” speech; 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 lectern with notes!”

He then points out that in 1914 Winston Churchill was making a speech from memory in the House of Commons.

“He lost his way and ….in the end he had to sit down mid-speech and the papers said he was humiliated and would never speak again in public. Thankfully he did, but never without having notes available.
If using notes is good enough for Churchill, then it’s certainly OK for the rest of us.”

Bob then explains how he uses flesh-pink cards instead of white ones to prevent the audience from 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 is a member of Waverley Communicators