07/23/2012 09:48 pm ET | Updated Sep 22, 2012

About Leadership: Speaking From Notes

Some people are excellent at speaking from a few notes, or a brief outline. Others find it very difficult. In recent years, people overcome that difficulty by using PowerPoint slides as both their notes and, increasingly, their text. Yet, as I have discussed elsewhere (the tyranny of PowerPoint) if you really want to get the attention of your audience you will get rid of your slides, unless they have something to show that is not just words - slides are for graphics, mouths are for words.

The great advantage and disadvantage of speaking only from a few notes are the same: You really have to know what you want to say, and how you are going to say it. And there is nothing as persuasive as a speaker who knows her subject so thoroughly that every bit of it is embedded in her mind.

There are times when speaking from notes, or with neither notes nor slides is inappropriate. Here are some examples: Doing a briefing for investors, when you want to be sure that you have agreed exactly what you are going to say, because the comments can be price sensitive in a public company, in which case a text is probably required; speaking to audiences whose native language is different from the language in which you are speaking, and who will be able to digest the subject matter more readily if they can see the words, in which case slides are probably required; formal speeches to large gatherings, or cases where you want to be very smooth in your delivery and not fish for words, so a text is best; talks where you must be very strict on time, and where a text enables you to really time your remarks.

But notes have a great advantage in many other situations. You convey authority by speaking in a more extemporaneous fashion. You can maintain better contact with your audience than either text or slides allow, because you can be looking around at them all the time -- i.e., you can always be reading the room. And you can be flexible enough to respond to things that previous speakers have said, if that is the situation, because you are working from your thoughts rather than from the printed word.

What to do: If I am giving a talk using notes, I start with the same rule I use when writing any speech, namely, 'what are the four points that I am going to make in this talk?' Then I jot down the sub points I want to be sure to make under each of these. And as I am doing that, I try to be writing very little, but saying aloud or to myself the sentences that I would use to convey the point.

This is very important. If you just have the notes, and have not tried to say it in sentences, both while making the notes and after you have the whole thing down, most of us will find ourselves fumbling for the right word or phrase, and this diminishes the experience that the audience has in listening to you. You are trying to convey the tricky mixture of spontaneity, authority, and audience contact, and to do that you have to be able to concentrate on the audience and their reaction, rather than on finding the right word or phrase.

So talk it through for yourself. And don't try to memorize. That is fatal. It leads to exactly the same sort of problem as not rehearsing at all -- you find yourself searching for the way you put it in your memorized text, when several other phrasings will do perfectly well.

Above all, use the speech as an opportunity to understand your subject more deeply. To ask questions, of yourself, of your colleagues and subordinates, to help clarify areas where your depth of understanding is not what it should be. This will also be of enormous help in answering questions.

And here is a thought that I keep in my mind that applies to speeches generally, however you are giving them. I suppose it shows just what sort of a competitive person I am. Most of the time, my audience is going to hear presentations from several people, often speaking before me and after me. My personal goal is always for them to leave thinking that mine was the best talk they heard that day. And I want to be self-critical enough to ask myself whether I achieved that goal.

About Leadership:
About Leadership is a series of 52 columns on corporate leadership -- essential skills, leading teams, managing your career, the strategic and business practices to make a company and its leader distinctive from competitors. These columns will be of interest to people leading small and medium sized companies today, many of whom have not had much formal training in management skills and techniques; for the many people in big companies who aspire to senior management; and for anyone who thinks: Give me a hint, how can I do this better?