Former UN Ambassador and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young once told me a story about how he learned the importance of speaking without notes.
As a minister in his early 20s, he always preached from a prepared text. But as he was getting ready to preach to a church in Beachton Georgia, a deacon at the church, seeing the notes, pulled Minister Young aside.
“The primitive Baptists come to worship with us,” the deacon explained. “And they believe that if anything is on paper, then the devil has something to do with it. They want to know that whatever you say comes from your heart, not from a piece of paper.”
After that day, Young put away his notes for good. It’s a lesson we should all learn.
Speaking without notes allows you to connect personally with your audience. Overreliance on a prepared text feels stilted. You would never use notes when chatting with a close friend. Similarly, you want your presentations to be as authentic and note-free as possible.
Here are four steps to minimizing the use of notes.
Step 1: Focus Your Message Around a Small Number of Ideas
People rely on notes because they are afraid they are going to miss an important point. That won’t happen with only three or four points.
Start by asking yourself “What are the simple takeaways that I really want my audience to remember.” Boil each takeaway into an eight-word bullet point and memorize them.
Ambassador Young told me that he knows his two or three key messages before he stands to speak. He starts each section by introducing the key idea and then discusses that idea.
He said it’s a lot like jazz music where you establish a simple theme and then riff off of that theme.
Step 2: Leave Half Your Tim for Q&A
Lots of Q&A relieves you from having to remember too much stuff. Just make your key points and let the audience ask for the rest.
One client asked, “But what if they don’t ask enough questions to fill in the information gaps?”
If you’re worried that they won’t ask the right questions, you can ask yourself the question and answer it. But I like to trust my audience to get the information it needs to make a decision.
Of course, leaving lots of time for Q&A means you have to prepare for the questions. Remember the words of Henry Kissinger as he opened a press conference: “Does anyone have questions for the answers I’ve prepared?”
Step 3: Tell Personal Stories
I’ve often told the story about discussing public speaking with Ambassador Young. I don’t need notes to remember it because it happened to me. And because it’s personal, it has power.
Step 4: Rehearse
A lawyer I was working with told me about how one of his partners speaks so well. “He doesn’t use a single note,” he said. “How does he do it?”
“Just because he’s speaking without notes,” I said, “doesn’t mean he’s is speaking impromptu.” Almost all great speakers rehearse a lot.
Next time you have to give a presentation, defy the devil. Dump your notes.
Joey Asher has worked with thousands of business people helping them learn how to communicate in a way that connects with clients. His new book 15 Minutes Including Q&A: a Plan to Save the World from Lousy Presentations” is available now. He is also the author three previous books including “How to Win a Pitch: The Five Fundamentals That Will Distinguish You from the Competition”, “Selling and Communication Skills for Lawyers” and “Even A Geek Can Speak.”