You know more than you think you do

In the TED Talk below, social scientist Dolly Chugh speaks about an interesting idea: how we can become better people if we just stop trying to be good. I don’t intend to analyze her talk; rather, in this post, I’d like to focus on her speaking notes. 

As you can see from the image below, Chugh is holding her notes in her left hand. If you watch the video, you will see that the notes are written on both sides of the paper. On one side (see, for example, around 1:25) the notes are comprehensive, in paragraphs, typed in small font and with handwriting at the bottom. On the other side (see, for example, around 7:10) there are four spaced out bullet points, a couple of which look like long sentences.

Here’s the interesting thing. The first time that Chugh looked at her notes is around 8:25 of the speech. Until that point, she was speaking freely and fluidly, discussing science and psychology, telling stories and engaging with her audience. She didn’t need the notes.

When she did check her notes for the first time, it took her a few seconds to find what she was looking for. This was not surprising, given the amount of information on the paper, but it broke the flow of her talk, however briefly. Chugh only checked her notes briefly twice more during her talk, at 9:10 and at 11:25, just before the end.

I am not against people using notes if necessary. And if you need to use them, you can be more effective if you follow a few simple rules.

Keep your notes simple

They should not consist of paragraphs of writing in small font. You won’t be able to find your point in the heat of the moment. Much better to have the main points of your talk written out in large font so that you can quickly situate yourself. The key thing is to know that you want to go from A to B to C to D. You do not need to write out the exact words that you will say about A, B, C and D.

Don’t hold the notes in your hand

They are distracting and limit your ability to gesture. It would have been better for Chugh to place her (simple) notes in a pocket or on a small table to the side. Then, if she needed them, she could check them quickly, put them back and continue speaking.

You know more than you think you do

I work with hundreds of people every year in public speaking and presentation skills trainings. Participants often come to the front of the room with detailed notes. I will let them speak for a bit to get a sense of how they use the notes, but then I will interrupt them.

I will take the notes and say something like, “A dog just ran in and ate your notes. Give us the information on your own.” And you know what? They always deliver and it is usually much more engaging because now, they are talking to the audience. This is hardly surprising. They have prepared and they know the material.

As Arthur Ashe said, preparation is the key to self-confidence. So if you have put in the effort to prepare well, have the confidence that you will know what to say.

Man writing notesAs long as you cover the main points of your talk, it rarely matters if you forget a minor detail or two because people are not going to remember everything you say anyway. The audience will not know that you have forgotten something.

Again, I am not opposed speakers using notes — I still use them on certain occasions. But you don’t want your notes to detract from your talk. And you don’t want them to become a crutch that you need for every speaking engagement.

For more ideas on how to use notes, you can check out this post.


About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
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6 Responses to You know more than you think you do

  1. Good points. From your 1st, this also follows: “Don’t make your talk complicated, either!”

    To that end, I’m a strong advocate for structuring talks around mnemonics like acronyms, alliteration, or letter series (eg “ABCD”). They help listeners see the big picture, they keep speakers focused during prep time, and they’re also a good thing to put in the notes (to remind the speaker what the mnemonic means, and to keep the talk on track).

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks, Craig. I love using mnemonics and acronyms that way. And yes, simplicity should be at the heart of most presentations.

      • I know you’re a fan of the book “Made To Stick”, so you might be interested in this discussion about the problems with their bad acronym, “SUCCES”. I also propose what I think’s a much better version of that acronym – namely, “STICKY”.

        (That post’s about the 5 merits of acronyms, and it’s a response to Nick Morgan’s scornful attack on them.)

        • John Zimmer says:

          Thanks for the comment, Craig. I remember reading something about the SUCCES / STICKY acronyms on your blog a while back. Interesting to read the exchange. Acronyms are a double-edged sword. When used like SUCCES / STICKY, they can be very helpful. Growing up in Canada, I remember learning the acronym HOMES as a way to remember the Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior. However, when overused, or used without stopping to think whether the audience will understand them, they are a nightmare. Elon Musk hit the nail on the head as I noted in this post.

  2. Marie says:

    Hi John,
    I couldn’t agree with you more. It can be difficult to lose the notes though, as we want to give the audience all the information we’ve prepared. We want to appear knowledgeable! But does the audience want to hear it all? Probably not, it would rather engage with you and hear your one message to take home and tell friends and family.

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