I could have sworn I have written about this before, but I can’t find it at the moment. Maybe I didn’t. That’s what all speakers worry about, I think: am I going to forget what I want to say? I had better leave myself a note.

When I teach beginning speakers about speaking notes, I teach principles, but I don’t insist on a particular way of doing them. Different people need to do notes differently. The answer to the question, “What kind of notes should I use as a speaker?” is “Whatever works for you.”

But there are some general principles of speaker notes. Here’s my take on the subject.

Speakers actually use notes

Sometimes people think that the best speakers don’t use notes. That’s a misconception. They may not make it obvious they are using notes, but unless it’s your signature speech that you have delivered many times, you’re not going to have a problem using notes. It’s more important to think about what you’re using the notes for.

Think ‘grocery list’

Speaking isn’t about getting the words right; it’s about giving the words impact. So you don’t need detailed notes, and you certainly don’t need to have every word you’re going to say in your notes. (Technically, that’s not notes; it’s a manuscript.) Many speakers hurt themselves by bringing up too many notes—notes with too much detail. You get lost in such notes, and you get sucked into reading them (which causes all kinds of problems) and losing contact with your audience. It may seem counterintuitive, but if you’re having trouble with your notes, the answer is probably to bring fewer notes to the lectern, not more.

I advise speakers to always have notes. It doesn’t matter if you look at them or not. You may benefit simply from having them in your shirt pocket, just in case you need them. It’s like a parachute for a pilot. You gain confidence just from knowing it’s under the seat. That doesn’t mean you’re constantly yanking on the cord, but it helps to know it’s there if you need it.

When I go to the store, for instance, simply putting “TP” on the list is enough to remind me to get toilet paper. I don’t need to write down how rolls or how many ply or what brand, etc., because it’s just a reminder that will bring back to mind all those details. Since it’s your speech that you prepared yourself, all you need are brief reminders.

Make an outline, but leave it home

I advocate creating an outline instead of writing a manuscript. Most people don’t talk the way they write or write the way they talk. There are exceptions, but for most of us this is true: if you ever write it out word for word, you will sound like you’re reading even when you’re not.

An outline doesn’t have to conform to academic standards. It just sets up the structure for the speech. The outline is not necessarily an order or presentation, but rather it’s a map of your mind, showing how ideas relate to each other.

So make an outline using complete sentences to make sure you have complete thought development. From the outline, create a grocery list, since the order in which you talk about things may be different from the map of how ideas relate. Then rehearse with your grocery list notes, refining them until you have the minimum necessary notes for confidence.

Outline points, not plans

Despite the graphic at the top, speaking notes are not a to-do list. Plan the points you want to make, not what you’re going to do. For instance, don’t write, “Tell them the history of the problem.” That does not ensure you have a grasp of the history of the problem. Instead, write a single complete declarative sentence that makes a point about the history of the problem. Then on your notes include a word or two that will help you remember the point.

Anticipate when you’ll need them

With practice, you will develop a feel for when you’re coming to a close of a “section” of the speech, and part of that will be recognizing the feeling that you don’t remember what to talk about next. If you stay two or three mental steps ahead of where you’re actually talking, you will be able to glance at your grocery list notes before you reach the point of requiring the note before you can utter another word. Just check your notes in a low-key manner before you need to know what to say next.

If you are miked so that you can move around (and please, God, save me from having to stay right behind the lectern), let your lectern hold the notes to leave your hands free. Avoid waving the notes as you talk, since that will distract the audience. Move away from the lectern, but anticipate the need early enough that you can walk to the lectern rather than run, and grab the next idea you want to discuss so you can continue smoothly.

Remember they don’t know

They don’t know what you had planned to say. They won’t realize you left out a section, unless you tell them. They won’t know that you had another 30 minutes worth of material you had wanted to share, unless you tell them. Your notes are for you. I have actually seen speakers shuffle through notes while mumbling to themselves, “Nope, gonna have to leave that out.” That just makes the audience feel cheated. As long as you achieve your objective (and you do have just a single, focused objective, right?), it’s OK that you forgot to mention a particular story or statistic or main point. Notes are simply a reminder, not a contract.

So noted

What works for you? If you would like to make a comment, share your experience with speaking notes.

Share this, please!

Donn King

Donn King works with people who want to forge top-notch speaking skills to increase their influence and impact so they can advance their career or business. He is associate professor of communication studies at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, as well as a speaker and writer. His background includes ministry, newspaper, radio, small magazines and other publications, as well as co-authoring a textbook and blogging.