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Is it cheating to use notes?

Helen: One of your concerns is being concise? The way you hit your key points was clear and super concise.

Client: I cheated. I used notes.

Helen: Let's blow this one apart, shall we?

As a TedX mentor, I know that getting a client to deliver seamlessly without notes on stage can be weeks or even months of work. That seemingly effortless delivery is often hard earned. 

The question of when to use notes comes up because on one hand, speakers can be sure to cover all their points. On the flip side, the word perfect delivery modeled for us on video every day makes it seem that note-free is the only way to look professional. 

So what do you sacrifice: accuracy or street cred?

When is it legit to use one or the other? How does using notes impact how the the audience views your authority?

And what's the connection to self care?

Let's break it down. It doesn't have to be either / or. 

There's: -

  1. - Fully written out text

  2. - Bullet points

  3. - No notes a la off the cuff/on the fly/impromptu

  4. - The entire text learnt off by heart and delivered verbatim

Let's start with fully written out notes. 

From an audience perspective, the clear disadvantage of someone reading off a text is that it can sound dry, unengaging, and dull. Unless someone is a trained actor they are not going to be as engaging as they would be if they were just speaking to you. I call this public reading not public speaking.

The other thing that happens when someone writes out their text in full, is that we write in a different linguistic register than when we speak. We write in a more formal tone and vocabulary. 

"I trust you concur," as opposed to,"You feel me?" 

Then again, there are contexts where it is really smart and appropriate to read off the text. 

When you're speaking in a context of high emotion like at a funeral or in a formal setting like a religious ceremony. Another clear case for using full notes and sticking to them like glue is when what you say has legal ramifications. 

Let's say your tech has had a catastrophic failure and you must make a statement to your shareholders and the press, you'd be wise to read verbatim from your prepared statement. 

This is a key example of self care. The stakes are too high to misspeak.

When I MC an event, I read the bios of the speakers off the page or the teleprompter. I play no games with the respect I give a speaker I invite to my stage and to deliver respect to a speaker, complete accuracy is key. I recommend sacrificing the cool factor to prioritize the accuracy factor. 

Overall, your audience does want you to raise your eyes and look at them, while you speak. This is more easily achieved if you're speaking to an audience in an extemporaneous style than if you are reading off a page.

Bullet Points 

The most common way that speakers achieve the balance of hitting all of their key messages and engaging warmly with an audience is to have pre-prepared bullet points. If you're comfortable enough speaking about your key ideas you won't need to read it from the written page. 

Bullet points on your screen can help you cover all your in a concise clear way without forgetting anything or sacrificing warmth and engagement.

No notes 

On a panel, the way to avoid the need for anything written in your hands is to prep your three key ideas in advance. 

Q&A is another no-notes context - except it's not. In general, I thoroughly encourage panelists to prep for the 10 most likely questions. You gain credibility by speaking without notes. You gain more credibility by speaking well without them. To speak well, prepare. 

It gets easier to speak off the cuff the more you speak about your core expertise. To get there, seek out low-risk opportunities to practice. 


And last but not least let's talk about context in which a speaker has memorized their entire text word for word. 

Just so you know, I am biased against this form.

Obviously. there are core texts like an effective self presentation or business outline that every speaker should know how to deliver verbatim. 

But, and you knew there was gonna be a but, the only circumstances in which I think it makes sense to learn a text off by heart is when you've had real time to prepare it. 

I once met a client who had learnt his text verbatim from a recording with a strong American accent. He responded in the Q&A with a strong Russian one. Guess what that did to his stage credibility. 

What makes the most sense? 

What makes the most sense for you is to think about what will set you up for success at your next event. 

Again, this is where self-care comes in. 

What do you need to get you ready for your next presentation? Don't ask, Is this cheating? 

Ask what looks like the most self-care for you. 

Friends, until you're ready to speak off the cuff, do that.

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