You must learn to use notes

I keep seeing the debate on should you use notes when speaking or not. Those who aspire to the status of top keynote speakers say notes should not be used it’s unprofessional but many argue the case for having prompts or aide memoirs available. The thing that amazes me is that they talk about speakers as if we had a single purpose which is a long way from my belief which I’ve explained below.

In order to help understand my philosophy I’ve produced Bob’s Speaker Spectrum below.


Bob’s Speaker Spectrum

On the right hand end we have the professional speaker. These are the people who speak for a living and therefore we can regard it as their profession. On the left hand end are the business speakers, who also may do a considerable amount of speaking but this is to support their profession rather than being and end in its own right. The Business Speaker end will typically have people in business who have to speak on project updates, sales presentations, team briefings etc., as well as politicians, preachers and anyone else who speaks regularly as a part of their job. Many speakers will be somewhere between the two extremes in that they may have a principal subject perhaps based on their specialist skills on which they speak regularly as well as having to undertake many ad hoc presentations. However to highlight the differences I’ll just focus on the two extremes of the spectrum.

There are three major differences between the two extremes :

  • Number of speeches.
    Many professional speakers have one speech. It may be customised but in principal it is one speech that they perform many times. Some profess to have three or four speeches but generally there’s one that dominates their business. It also becomes like a self-fulfilling prophesy in that potential clients are likely to hear our best speech and want the same. It’s only when we have a history with our clients that we tend to get the freedom to branch out.However Business Speakers have almost a different speech every time. That may be the changing status of their project, a speech for a special event or a different political issue and therefore they have to deal with new material virtually every time out.
  • The Amount of Preparation Time
    When professionals develop their keynote speech they spend a lot of time and effort doing it. The speech may be the result of many months of research, there will definitely be a considerable amount of speech writing time, rehearsal time and probably a number of run outs in front of friendly audiences to check the flow and get some feedback before they start delivering it commercially.The business speakers have no such luxury. They have to deliver speeches at short notice on new subjects and (particularly in the case of politicians) the speech may be researched and written by others so that there total preparation time is reading the speech in the car on the way to the event!
  • The use of notes
    The professional speakers having spent a long time researching and developing a speech which they then perform many times over clearly have no need of notes. Why would they? The repetition alone will help the speech stay clearly in their mind.The business speakers however often have little preparation and almost no repetition clearly need notes and equally rightly so. Who would think it’s valuable use of the Prime Minister’s or senior business leader’s time sitting down to try and remember a speech just so they don’t have to use notes. It’s not, and we’ll often see the Prime Minister go to a function with a sheaf of notes that have been prepared for him, probably with one read through. And yet when he performs he does so excellently with brief reference to his notes and no loss of engagement with the audience.

So, for me, it seems that the debate is not about whether speakers should use notes or not it’s about under what circumstances do we expect speakers to use notes. Given that we could all be in a position to use notes if the circumstances are right, then it also seems logical that our efforts should be to teach all new speakers how to use notes effectively so that they have a choice.

When I have to use notes I either use small flesh pink card (so the audience doesn’t see the flash of white on my hand as it moves) or I use a speech map (rather like a mind map) which I put on a music stand set at under waist height. That way I can see my aide memoirs clearly but it doesn’t interfere with my engagement or eye contact with the audience. I also put small props on my music stand so I’m not retreating to the back corners of the stage, where the lecterns normally are (!) to retrieve my props.

I think the case is clear. We should all learn to speak well with notes and to work without them where possible and Toastmasters is a great place to build both the skills of speaking with and without notes, but also the art of impromptu speaking in case you ever get stuck on the stage without your words. But I know that not everyone will be convinced so I offer this further evidence.

Think of the great speakers of the last century: John F Kennedy’s “Man on the Moon” speech; Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream”; Winston Churchill’s “We will fight them on the beaches” speech. Probably three of the greatest speeches ever made – all of them  behind a lectern with notes! Great platform skills can undoubtedly enhance a presentation but ultimately it is the content that makes our speeches valuable. I know a top keynote speaker who often has an aide memoir on the table with his water. He reckons that the speaker’s fees are based on the value he imparts to the audience and how they go on to use that information in their business so he feels he has a duty to make sure everything is right not to worry about whether he has to look at a note to ensure he includes all his key points.

Still not convinced…..

In 1904 a young Winston Churchill was making a speech from memory in the House of Commons. He lost his way and like most speakers who memorise their words went back and tried to repeat the same sentence in the hope the rest of the words would come.. but they didn’t. 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.

I think if it was good enough for Churchill it should be OK for the rest of us. What do you think?

First Lesson from the Apprentice – the Art of Followership

Yes it’s back – a new series of the Apprentice and immediately it brings a lesson to mind – although I have a feeling this will not be the last!

The first episode of this series showed the two teams getting on with their first task except everyone wanted to show they were the best leader  – and consequently none of them made good followers.

If you’ve seen my “How to Talk to Aliens” presentation you may remember the grid of characteristics based on the original work by Merrill and Reid [1].

The common perception is that the Driver is the obvious leader but here is plenty of scope for different personalities styles to lead. Perhaps more importantly good leaders have an ability to spot when to practice good followership and let other people come to the fore. This is particularly important if you’re the boss and want your staff to work on their own initiative and without constant reference to you. Following is an excellent way of helping your staff develop with a little security from your support.

It may be surprising how powerful the characteristics, we don’t normally associate with leadership, can be.  Particularly the listening, relationship building and supportive skills are excellent for helping your staff grow and ultimately make you life easier.

For me being an effective follower can bring just as much success as being the leader.

So how did our Apprentices score – Nil Point!

[1] Personal Styles & Effective Performance : David W. Merrill , Roger H Reid
ISBN-10: 0801968992  ISBN-13: 978-0801968990

My Top Tip – Record Everything

It was great fun delivering my workshop on “Competitions – the driver for excellence” at the Division B contest a couple of weeks ago. One of the best parts of having to dredge through your experience to come up with your top reasons for competing is that it reminds you of the tips you’ve learnt, that have been so valuable, and yet you do them so instinctively now that you don’t always think of them. One such tip, for me, was record everything.

I was very fortunate when I started out in Toastmasters that the first club I joined was run by a top international speaker, Frank Furness. Frank was then and is still today a wonderful source of encouragement and support and when I decided to join the world of professional speaking the first thing I did was sign up on Frank’s Boot Camp which gave me a supercharged view of the speaking world, a resource of tools and templates that I still use today and loads of tips on how to get started.

However before I got to that stage the first thing Frank told me was that if I was serious I should get a voice recorder and record my speeches. What a fantastic piece of advice. Of course I complied and bought my first voice recorder straight away. It was useful far beyond I imagined and I see its three main uses as :

  1.  It lets you listen back to  everything you do. Not only does this help you understand the different   qualities that you possess in your speaking but you will also be able to  hear the audience reaction to your humour. In general video is best for  recording yourself as you get the visual and audio stream but it’s not  always convenient to set up a camera when you’re performing, but you can  always pop an audio recorder in your pocket and clip the microphone on  your jacket/blouse and pick up excellent audio. See below for my suggestions on which recorder to look for.
  2. Library
    Once you’ve got into the habit of recording everything you can build your  own library of all your speeches which is incredibly valuable. After I’ve finished each speech I create a folder containing any research notes  I used in developing the speech, a  “Speech Map” which is like a mind map (Tony Buzan’s IP) but runs vertically down the page, the original recording and an MP3 version, any feedback I received and any notes I gave out. This is then a complete record of everything I’ve done for that speech.  Then if I’m asked to deliver a talk I did for someone two years ago I just listen to the MP3 while reading the speech map and almost straight away it all comes back to mind. Since I rehearse my talks using all three senses (see point 3) then the recall is easy. You spend a lot of time working on each new speech so don’t throw it away by having no audio record of the talk.
  3. Rehearsal
    When I’m in rehearsal mode for a speech I record myself rehearsing as soon as I’m happy with the content and structure. Then I put the recording on my MP3 player and on a CD in my car. In the gym or in my car I have the talk playing. I don’t really learn it as I don’t actively listen in either  location, but the repetition in the background seems to install the content in my mind by a sort of osmosis. Couple this with writing my speech map (I’ll tell you how I do that in a later posting) and I’ve engaged my visual, audio and kinaesthetic senses in rehearsing the speech and ingrains it in my mind rather than it being a learnt string of text.

Which recorder should you get? Well that depends a great deal on what you want!

I use a Sony digital voice recorder. Mine is a very good quality and cost around £120 but I use that because I publish them afterwards and I want to record in near broadcast quality. However just for listening back to your speeches and saving them (see later) then you don’t need that quality and there are a whole range of them at Amazon if you follow the link below.

Sony Voice Recorders

If you look at something like the Sony ICD-BX112 for £22 I think it’s excellent value. It records in MP3 which is fine for just listening back to. Mine uses a special recording code to produce the broadcast quality and that’s what costs the money.

You will also need to pay around £7-£10 for a clip on mike. If you look beneath the Sony ICD-BX112 you’ll see a recommended Speedlink clip on mike for £7 which again will be fine. AT its highest quality, which I suggest you use, you’ll still get 22 hours of recording which should be ample!

You’ll also find that some smart phones have voice recorders built in but I’d check that they’ll stay on for the full length of your speech before you use them in anger.

Whatever you decide to use doesn’t  matter as long as you always RECORD IT!

I hope you find this helpful.

Best Wishes


The Voice of Margaret Thatcher

While watching the funeral of Baroness Thatcher yesterday I remembered how important her voice was to her authority. You can hear the audio of how her voice changes during her time in office here

At the start of her office it was such a gentle pleasant voice and under the guidance of tutor from the National Theatre she leant to drop the tone and add a strident authoritative quality to her voice.

I’ve  worked in Engineering for the last 38 years and the role of women has changed. At the beginning women in Engineering were regarded as about as feminine as the Eastern European women’s shot put team, but now the roles are very much equal and more and more women are in team leaders’ roles. Still, for some women they retain the gentle pleasant voice that characterised Margaret Thatcher’s early office.  I wouldn’t suggest there’s a necessity for every woman to develop the lower authoritative tone that Baroness Thatcher developed but I do think there’s a strong case for developing a tone that’s clearly business like and  commands attention and respect.

You can develop your own style using a number of different vocal assets. Your pace and directness will set the tone of a conversation, making it clear that your are business focussed but we get so much of our meaning from the intonation people use (not the 38%/45% attributed to Albert Mehrabian) that it’s worth the effort to make sure your voice has the best tone for the business environment.

You could do this your self through vocal exercises are perhaps better to use a vocal coach. I’ve worked with two great coaches. From my time in the Professional Speaking Association I worked with  Fergus McLelland and from my mastermind group a coach who came from an operatic background, Susan Heaton Wright who runs Executive Voice.

You may not be setting your sights on Prime Minister but your vocal quality can have a big effect on your career and it’s worth taking seriously to make the biggest impact you can in the workplace.

Welcome to my new web site

Hi Folks,

welcome to my new web site. You’ll see that I’ve chosen a blog style front page so I can keep you updated with news and free articles.

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Best Wishes