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7 Reasons You Should Give A Talk Without Using Notes

One of the questions I get asked all the time is “how do you speak for 40 minutes without using notes?”

Personally, I actually have notes, but I rarely if ever use them when I speak. I prepare them because

Better preparation makes me a better speaker.

It clarifies my thinking.

It gives me something to review the day before the talk and the day of the talk.

When I give a sermon or talk, I almost always take them with me on the stage because they contain the scripture passages or teaching points that will be on the screen (so that helps me stay in sync with the computer operator who runs my slides), but other than that, I never use them during the talk.

But I didn’t start that way.

I remember that moment early in my ministry when I finally freed myself of notes. It was nerve wracking. (In the next post, I’ll look at how to deliver a talk without using notes. It’s actually not that hard, and it’s learnable.) But it was so rewarding. And you can do it too. But maybe you need some motivation first.

So let me jump to that. Whether you

are chained to your notes

refer to them often

glance frequently down for prompting or

keep referring to them nervously trying to remember the next point

using your notes almost always makes you less effective as a communicator.

So, why should you do the work and take the risk associated with freeing yourself from your notes? Let’s jump into some reasons. Because when you understand the why, you’ll be motivated to learn the what (next post).

There are at least seven good reasons to drop your notes:

1. Your favorite communicators don’t use notes. I’m going out on a limb here to guess that your favourite communicators don’t use notes. Why? Because the best rarely, if ever, do. People connect better with speakers who speak without notes. You do. So why not become one?

2. You come across like you mean it when you don’t use notes. This isn’t a good thing. It’s just a true thing. You might be 100% sincere when reading from your notes. But you don’t come across that way. When you read a talk, people think it’s coming from your head, not your heart. Or worse, they think it’s a series of points you’re supposed to believe but don’t. Freeing yourself up from your notes creates a much more believable message.

3. You will be far more natural. There’s a ‘reading voice’ and a ‘speaking voice’ people have. You will be far more conversational, engaging and natural when you speak without notes. And your body language will be 100% better.

4. You can make eye contact. That’s just huge. It’s annoying when people don’t look you in the eye when they talk to you. It’s completely disengaging when a public speaker doesn’t.

5. You will read the room better. So much of communication is non-verbal. While you can’t always see the audience when you talk (in the case of pre-recorded video or dark house lights), when you can, it’s invaluable. You can see which part of your talks are resonating, and which aren’t so you can linger longer or move on faster. You can see who’s leaning forward, and who’s falling asleep. It can help you track how you’re connecting.

6. You’ll own your material more deeply. When you have to ‘say it’ without notes, you’ll own it so much better. Learning your talk forces you to digest it, internalize and own it. As a result, your talk will be more compelling and authoritative. It just will.

7. You’ll be more vulnerable. Notes are safe. Speaking without them is more risky but more rewarding. Sure, you might mess up, but laugh at yourself. People will laugh with you.  They’ll like you because you’ll seem human, which, after all, you are.

Those are seven reasons I see for speaking without notes. What would you add? What helped you drop your notes along the way?

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  • Drew Haywood

    I agree. I’ve tried using notes in the past when giving a message and I tend to get more nervous and make more mistakes. When I went to not using notes I began to get better at public speaking as well as being more natural and owning what I’m saying. I use them to prepare and that is it.

  • brad

    Carey – thanks for this points on speaking without notes – I really think its a relational thing. I just relate better without out them. When I was in youth ministry I would never speak with notes. If I looked down for a second – the kids would be gone – Now that I’m doing youth group forr grown ups – I’ve just followed suit. thanks again for putting this out there!

    • http://www.careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

      So so true Brad. Thanks!

  • Anton Lim

    Great thoughts. Glad to consider and reflect on the why before I jump into the what. Thanks Carey, always learning a lot from you and your experiences and your learnings!

    • http://careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

      Thanks so much Anton…appreciate you and your leadership immensely.

  • David Fields

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I can see how many of your points make sense (3-7 especially), but I got a bit hung up on number 1. Most of my favorite preachers do use notes and don’t come off as inauthentic, but as clear, and are able to maintain a dynamic presentation. I have watched in my own preparation a progression towards writing my speaking voice – and to near memorization, when I have the time – though still with a complete manuscript in front of me. Looking forward to reading your “how” post!

    • Carey Nieuwhof

      David, I’m so glad you’ve got mentors/favourites who use notes well. It’s rare gift, but if it works – awesome. I just know most of us are better and more effective without them.

      PS. I’ve embedded the link to the ‘how’ post into the original post. Thanks for the reminder. :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/jonathan.west.167189 Jonathan West

    Since when was being a good comunicator a factor in being a good preacher? Barack Obama – good communicator, great preacher? Joel Osteen, great communicator – rubbish preacher. See 1 Corinthians 2:1 and many other passages of Paul.

    • Carey Nieuwhof

      Jonathan, you’re right. The two are different. Being a good communicator does not make you a good preacher, but I think most good preachers are by definition, good communicators. Ineffective preachers are often ineffective communicators.

    • Stephen Burnett

      Three questions:
      1. You’re really suggesting that being a good communicator isn’t even a factor in being a good preacher?

      2. Can you make a case that Paul himself wasn’t an excellent communicator? (See 1 Cor. 2:1, and find me an ineloquent passage written by Paul)

      3. Have you never heard a bad sermon by a well intentioned, Spirit filled individual? How about one that could have been better?

      • Dan Renton

        Actual Paul was a terrible preacher. This is evidenced in 2 corthians when his preaching was compared to apples. Apollos was the gifted speaker and people complains that Paul was not dynamic enough. Paul didn’t. Enjoy the celeb status we give him today. Many brothers at the time would have compared him to the modern day dry preacher

      • Dan Renton

        And yes I would suggest you don’t need to be a good communicator to preach. Not that it doesn’t help mind you.a
        Couple examples
        1) chuck
        Smiih the pastor of Calvary chapel which is The biggest church plant movement in American history is a dry preacher. But he took of a church of 16 people and it grew to 2000 in two years the. 10 000 in 5 and 60 years later there is not a church in the states that comes to planting as many churches that came out of the Calvary chapel movement. Even Andy Stanley was effected by them – all from a dry preacher

  • http://twitter.com/ScottTinman ScottTinman

    Interested in the next post on the How…but also wonder about those that give multiple “talks” a week and how to shuffle this without the use of notes…maybe it is developing others around you so the burden is not always on one communicator?

    • Chuck

      I’m a person that DOES deliver multiple talks per week. I think there’s a few responses to that. Fundamentally I think it boils down to knowing and being comfortable / confident with your material. If you aren’t, your audience will detect it. If I digress and lose my spot, a quick glance at the current slide resets my charted course.

      • Carey Nieuwhof

        I think that’s a key point Chuck. There’s a big gap between having them as a reference just in case and relying on them.

  • Glenda Childers

    Oh wow … these are good reasons. Can I really do it? Looking forward to the hows.

  • http://www.facebook.com/heyjustinherman Justin Herman

    Great post…

  • Tanya Mullings

    Very timely, giving a talk tomorrow night! I prefer to make points to refer to so that I stay on topic and I have moments when I go blank. But when I speak I like to look out at the audience. I don’t like writing every word out because I can’t follow it. I’ve not entertained the thought I’ve not using them at all. Looking forward to the rest of this writing series!

    • cnieuwhof

      Tanya…hope the talk goes great (sure it will). I’m on the same page as you method wise. Cool!

  • Christy Burton

    Very useful information for communicators of all walks of life. Thanks for these words of wisdom from one of the best speakers I’ve heard.

    • cnieuwhof

      Thanks for the feedback Christy. Kind of you.

  • http://twitter.com/JosephusD Joe Durika

    I’m taking my first step into teaching a mid-sized adult community next month, though I’ve been teaching kids for years. I know the kids get much more out of a message or teaching time when I am able to unshackle myself from my notes, move among them, make eye contact, and generally just provide a more interactive communication.

    • cnieuwhof

      Best wishes with the transition Joe. Most communicators I know say if you can connect with kids and teens, adults are easy. I think you’ve got a leg up!

  • Jeff Loach

    In 5, Carey, it can help you track how…what?

    All compelling reasons. I look forward to the next installment. I always feel freer and a better communicator when I can work without notes, but some weeks, it’s just not possible time-wise…I’m sure you’ll address this.

    • cnieuwhof

      Hi Jeff. Thanks. I get that. Great point…the longer in front of your talk you start writing it, the easier it will be to deliver without notes. I’ll do a post on the process of writing this week too. Thanks for the prompt!