Toastmasters - Collected Wisdom

These are summaries of the collected wisdom of contributors to a Toastamsters newsgroup which operated between 1995 and 2008 and ToastmastersPrime, a Google group which commenced in 2008. This is not an official Toastmasters site, but is an edited collection of posts from the newsgroup and the Google group. These groups provide an unofficial means of communicating for an enthusiastic group of Toastmasters from throughout the world.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Speaking without notes

It is hard to imagine a speaking skills topic that has more air-time on the newsgroup than speaking without notes. The post title is included with the contributor so that you can follow the thread at

Here are some of the suggestions that have been made over the years.
May 1998 - Speech without notes

I don't find taping it much help. On the other hand, I find reading it out aloud as I type it and listening to its sound, I can find the right words and rhythms.

1. I don't write the speech out word for word. At most, I write a bare bones outline.
2. I flesh the speech out by talking to myself. My family thinks I'm crazy--so let them.
3. I don't memorize words so much as I memorize ideas.
4. I tape record myself and listen critically.
5. Most importantly, I practice, practice, and practice.

July 2002 Own Speaking Style = Own Speaking Voice - NOTES
I write out a draft, and then rehearse it, making sure I know what the structure is - i.e., the points I want to make and what follows what. if I have any particularly cute bits of language I want to use, I'll work on that a bit. But once I get up to give the speech, I don't worry about giving it verbatim - I hopefully am comfortable enough with the *flow* of what I want to say that the actual words come out fairly cleanly on their own.

In April 2001, Dennis was looking for ideas in the thread "How do you Memorize your talk?"

Frank uses memorization by association.
For instance let's say I am delivering a speech about "Life Lessons" I memorize the following
1. Book
2. On top of the Book is an ice cream cone
3. Over the ice cream cone is a TV
4. Sitting on the TV is a Cat

Book will remind me of a story regarding school and how learning is important.
Ice Cream Cone will remind me of a story that illustrates a young boy who after eating an ice cream sundae made sure that he had enough money to tip the waitress.
TV will remind me of the story of the widow of Nat King Cole, who sent a TV to a white man that picked her up; overcoming bigotry; in time for her husband's funeral
Cat will remind me to conclude.

Rod agreed but expanded:
All memory is associative in some or other way, so your statement is generally true, but memory techniques vary from individual to individual. What works for one may not work for another.
I've tried this 'stacking' technique many times over many years, and it just doesn't work well for me. Neither do mind maps, another very valuable technique.
One of those that works for me is numbers. Also an associative technique, but different to 'stacking'.
It's only necessary to remember one list and, based on 1-10, here's the way it works for me.

1 gun 2 shoe 3 tree 4 door 5 hive 6 sticks 7 heaven 8 gate 9 mine 10 hen

If these words don't 'fit', find substitutes that rhyme with the numbers. Then associate (preferably as wildly as possible) each heading with the appropriate number, in order.

I prefer direct associations with my rhyming master list:

1 gun (schools - learning is important) Think of the problems of guns in schools and the recent disasters.

2 shoe (money to tip the waitress) The money for the tip is kept in the boy's shoe, so that he won't spend it on anything else.

3 tree (story of Nat King Cole's widow and the TV) I see her waiting under a tree and being picked up by the white man.

4 door (conclusion) This door is at the END of a long passage.

We will all create different mental pictures and associations, so this technique is very flexible.

The more wild, detailed and colourful the images, the better. One of the nice things about this technique is that you can run through your list forwards, backwards, or pick individual items by number. If it works for you, that's great. If it doesn't, you haven't lost anything.

Mykill added:
I find that all I have to do is practice reading the speech about 4-5 times in advance and I get the speech pretty much bang on. I actually have a harder time remembering short things like the Toast or Thought of the Day. It also means everytime you do the speech, it's a little different and the audience can usually pick up on that.

Charles hasn't memorized a speech in years, but often speaks without notes.

It comes down to first knowing your topic very well, figuring out what you want to get across, and organizing it. What little I do memorize falls into the categories of openings, closings, quotations, and transitions.

If you use visual aids or handouts, these can substitute for notes. I like the PowerPoint program and use it to make overhead projection transparencies. However, it also lets you prepare note sheets for your audience. A chart or an overhead transparency or a slide can keep your speech on track.

Ledema finds rehearsing it in bed just before going to sleep helps me to learn it better than rehearsing it at any other time. Start with a portion of the speech and repeat that portion until you have it memorized, then add the next portion until you have the whole speech memorized. Doing this just before sleeping seems to plant it in my mind better than working on it at other times.

For James it's important to read it aloud and practice your gestures. You cannot memorize a spoken delivery by reading silently. Your entire series of movements, if consistent, will help you remember. I've had it happen where I thought "if I'm looking at the back left corner of the room, holding my prop, then I'm at this part in my speech". I've heard this called "muscle memory".

Next, I try to ignore the exact words and memorize only the key points and logical flow. Example: for a short joke, memorize the punchline and the question will take care of itself. For a longer joke, memorize the punchline and the basic logic (what is the difference between ministers, priests, and rabbis, and why is that difference funny when they walk in to a bar together?)

A speech is the same sort of animal. I spend the most time memorizing the start and finish, which are the key parts to getting attention when I begin and making it memorable when I'm done. Then, I just remember the logical flow that connect the two.

Sometimes I imagine a conversation, where my speech is the answers to a series of questions. What does my imaginary friend want to ask next, based on what I just said? I then give my answers to the imagined questions.

When you offer a quotation, I think it's okay to read it (demonstrating your attention to accuracy and the fact it isn't your words).

The problem with memorizing something word-for-word is that you might find yourself talking without thinking. This is essential to politics, but otherwise dangerous. Did you ever get stuck because you forgot what you just said?

Always have a few dramatic pauses...they let the audience absorb your information, and give you a chance to collect your thoughts.

For Rick, technical speeches almost always involve notes. Even presentations by professional speakers. The note are just very big and called visual aids.

For stories, I visualize a progression that I'm walking though. For example, I gave a speech about the summer I was a councilor at a Y camp. I visualize myself at the cabin. I talk about Brian (the subject of the speech - a boy who is at camp all summer not just one session) leading the other boys in pine cone soccer on the roof the the cabin. I visualize myself walking to the field. I talk about the importance of the day and why the whole camp is headed toward the field. I visualize the children heading toward the lake for dinner as their parents pick them up. I explain process of children and parents headed to dinner. I then explain how the last of the children are picked up. I visualize Brian and me headed down to dinner. I explain how Brian is sure his mother will show up and we decide to eat dinner while we wait for her then we spend the evening playing the games together. I never memorize the speech - just the flow.

In May 1998 when Mark suggested speaking without notes is like not wearing deodorant -- there is no excuse for it and folks can usually tell, the thread was Speech without Notes

Joy doesn't have any notes. I work my speech out in my head, the way I think I want it. Then I tape record it. I play back the tape, listening for rough spots, things that need clarification, or other changes I want to make, and at the same time I time it. Then I know if I need to add or delete material. I make the changes, practice a few more times, and tape it again. This way I learn it but I don't ever have any notes. This does not work for everyone, but I still feel that getting away from notes is a desirable goal.

I also find that taping makes me more aware of repetitions and other poor speech habits I may not have been told about by an "Ah" counter or Grammarian.

Mike reported that at the District Spring Conference, Marshall Gibson, a Toastmaster and professional storyteller, gave some advice about storytelling that applies to giving speeches. It should never be exactly the same twice.

Reasons for the speech to be different are:
(1) the audience - telling the story to children, and telling the same story to adults will be different due to the level of understanding.
(2) Lessons learned - Each time you tell a story or give a speech, you will learn what works, and what doesn't. You can then improve your story or speech.
(3) Staleness - If you give a memorized speech several times, you become burned out, and the speech loses its vitality, and
(4) Sometimes the audience knows of you, and will want to hear the speech again, and be pleasantly surprized with the newness of the speech or story.

Michael thought if you write and rewrite it as an essay it will be a nightmare to present without notes. If you prepare it using keywords and saying it out (not necessarily out loud!) then it will be much easier.

Organization is also very important. The first speech I tried without any notes was the number 3 where logical structure is emphasised. If your structure is logical enough, you CANT get lost.

To build up confidence try starting with a speech that you can't forget. A good choice, in my view, is a story, "what I did on my holiday", or some such.

Finally, impormptu practise at table topics will eventually give you the confidence that if you get a little lost, you can rewrite your speech on the fly. This is not meant to be an excuse---a real expert (not me!) will rewrite her speech as she goes to suit the audience reaction.

Of course, it will take lots of preparation. No question...

Professional speaking coach and seminar leader Bill disagreed with the no notes philosophy:

I NEVER suggest that my students go to the lectern without access to their notes. A five minute speech is one thing but a longer speech is an entirely different matter. Notes are the rails on which the train runs smoothly to the station. They should not be an excuse not to practice or know your material but they certainly should not be omitted. Always have them handy.

Even the most practiced professional can lose his or her place and notes can save the day.

When John F delivers a speech, if you follow with a print copy you will find that what I say and what is written are very close. But then, that is the musician in me who is trained to reproduce a piece of music exactly as it appears on the printed score.

The material I've read on public speaking encourages us as public speakers to get away from memorizing a speech word for word. Instead, what we should be working on is memorizing our outlines! Then, with the memorized outline, we add the words as we deliver the speech. On of the advantages of learning to do it this way is--we don't get thrown in the middle of the speech if we forget a line, and then wind up looking like dolts.

James finds the following helpful:
1. I don't write the speech out word for word. At most, I write a bare bones outline.
2. I flesh the speech out by talking to myself. My family thinks I'm crazy--so let them.
3. I don't memorize words so much as I memorize ideas.
3. I tape record myself and listen critically.
4. Most importantly, I practice, practice, and practice.

For Rick, the type of speech affects the approach:

For a story, I learn the flow of the story.

On a technical speech, visual aids like flip charts and overhead transparencies are good for you and the audience.

The outline and figures help to communicate the information to the audience. It also helps to keep you on track and reminds you of details.

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