Read, Memorize, or Use Notes?

Do you know when to read, memorize, or use notes?

Lisa B. Marshall
5-minute read
Episode #33

Listener John Miller asked the following question:

Do you have a particular preference for handling the material that will guide a speech? I've actually tried presenting in three different ways: reading word for word, winging it with no notes at all, or going from an outline.

Thanks, John, for your question. Like many guidelines for public speaking, the answer is, it depends.

Reading Is Usually a Bad Idea

Many students and business executives ask if it’s OK to read a speech. My answer is always the same. It’s rarely a good idea to read a speech, unless you meet two criteria: 1) You’re a political or business leader and 2) It’s critically important that your words be spoken exactly as written.

For example, if you are the chairman of McNeil addressing the press after the “Tylenol scare,” then it’s preferable to read. Or if you’re President Reagan and you’re addressing the nation after the Challenger explosion, then it’s OK to read.

But other than that, don’t do it. It’s a bad idea. Really!

Words written for the eye just don’t sound right for the ear. We don’t speak the same way as we write. Written words sound stilted when spoken. Besides, reading requires you to look at your text and not your audience. And if you do occasionally look up at your audience, it’s really easy to lose your place. The biggest drawback is that reading limits your interaction with the audience, so the delivery lacks a conversational feel.

If You Are Going to Read

However, I know that some of you, no matter what I say, are going to read your speech. So, if you are, here are a few tips. You’ll need to learn and practice the “scoop and speak” technique. The idea is to not look as if you are reading. During the pauses in your speech, you look at the text, which, by the way, should be typed only on the tops of pages in very large print. This way your eyes don’t look too far down. So, you look at the text, and then “scoop” a sentence or two. You don’t say the words until your eyes have returned to your audience. Keep track by pointing to the text with your finger. It takes some practice but can be effective.

If you are going to read your speech, only type on the tops of the pages in very large print. This way your eyes don’t look too far down.

The second step is to not sound as if you’re reading. The way to do that is to write the text for the ear. You need to use short sentences using common conversational words. Avoid subordinate clauses and compound sentences. Choose very specific adjectives and verbs. Finally, read out loud as you are writing. If it doesn't make sense or you stumble, you need to change it.

Memorizing Isn’t a Good Idea, Either

You’ll sometimes hear speakers who sound as if they are reading but they’re not. Instead, they have memorized the speech. Again, usually the memorized words were intended for the eye instead of the ear, so the delivery sounds stilted.

I’m not a fan of memorization. When a speaker memorizes something, his or her normal conversational voice inflection disappears. It often sounds to me as if the speaker is talking AT me instead of with me. With memorizing, mental blocks become inevitable. It is not a matter of “will” you forget; it’s a matter of WHEN! I can’t say this loudly enough. Don’t memorize every word.


About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.