Oratory with notes (or not)

Yesterday I attended a major event at which one of the key speakers discovered, as she reached the podium, that someone had removed her notes and that, therefore, she had no prepared address in front of her. I have to say she never missed a beat, and proceeded to deliver an excellent, well structured, witty and detailed address, for which she received an enthusiastic ovation. It was a great example of expert communication skills, by someone with the confidence to pull it off.

In contrast, some months ago I was at an event at which a well known speaker, on reaching the podium, found the prepared speech and proceeded to deliver it, although it became clear within the first paragraph that it wasn’t his speech at all, but the speech of the person who was to talk after him. This was obvious not least because, as he began to speak, he found himself thanking himself for the excellent speech he had in fact not yet delivered. He also didn’t hesitate and, without any pause, continued with the next speaker’s address right through to the end, not excluding references to his past life that wasn’t his past life at all. The amazing thing was that this didn’t seem to put him off in the slightest way – he was a man obviously used to others preparing his talks, and his task was to deliver them and not wonder too much about the content; or possibly not even notice. But what was the next speaker to do? Yes, you’ve guessed it, he took the notes intended for the first speaker and read them out. It was the most bizarre event I have ever attended.

As I have pointed out before, years ago I used to read out all speeches according to a verbatim script I would prepare in advance. And I swear I was truly awful at it. Believe me, terrible. Then one day I decided to try speaking with just a couple of short notes setting out the structure in front of me, but no detailed text – and I have never looked back. Please forgive the arrogance, but I believe I am a good speaker. But the quality of a speech depends on two things: the amount of thought that has gone into the content, structure and objectives of the speech; and the skill used to deliver it. Some people can do that effectively with a prepared script, but in my experience the excellence of the communication is usually enhanced by the ability of a speaker to convey a degree of commitment and passion (and wit), and all of this is much more effective if it is done with an element of spontaneity that is apparent to the audience.

So if you need to speak in public, go on, throw away those detailed notes, just work out a structure and secure the necessary facts and data, and then speak from the heart.

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4 Comments on “Oratory with notes (or not)”

  1. Perez Christina Says:


  2. Vincent Says:

    It is one of the reasons I like Vincent Browne and John Bowman, both of them have the rare ability to listen with the mind. Gay Byrne had it and from lyric FM of a Sunday, still has.

  3. Jilly Says:

    I completely agree, and would extend the principle to lecturing as well. Although lecturing is a very specific kind of public speaking, it is still much better done with only the minimum necessary notes (for exact quotes, facts and figures, and perhaps a bare outline of points just to stop you going off on a tangent and delivering a lecture on a different topic from the one you intended!).

    I think the reason for this is that the point of lecturing is a) to teach the audience something they didn’t previously know and b) to give them the necessary enthusiasm to pursue the topic further, since lectures should be guides to study. And both of those ends are better served by speaking largely without notes. The audience are more likely to be convinced by your authority and expertise if you don’t have to read your lecture point-by-point, and even more importantly, you will NEVER communicate passion and enthusiasm for a subject by reading your lecture word-for-word. And doing that is the primary job of lecturing…

  4. John H Says:

    A bit dangerous for some people. I remember a priest years ago whose most feared words on a Sunday morning were “I only got home at 3 AM”.
    He would then proceed to give the most rambling, incoherent sermon imaginable. Inevitably, these were also the mornings when he went on for the longest time.

    Preparation, preparation, preparation. That and an escape route for those who need it.

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