Speaking Tips: No Speaker Notes

For many years, I’ve quietly mentored a few speakers in the industry. As I slow down my own speaking career, I’ve decided to put some of that mentoring advice into Internet form. I’ve seen numerous speakers bring notes to themselves up to the podium, and reference them during the presentation.

In some cases, they try to hide the fact that this is what they’re doing, and in others, they just openly make reference to them. And to many speakers, this may come as a surprise, but….

Not. A. Fan.

First reason: eyes down on the notes is just as bad as eyes down on the script on the monitor. Keep your eyes up. It’s bad enough that you have to be looking at the screen while you’re typing out the code for the demo, don’t ruin your few moments for making eye contact with the audience by giving your eyes something else to look at right there on the podium.

But secondly…. why, exactly, do you need them?

More importantly, what’s the message you’re sending?

Using speaker notes sends one of several signals to the audience, any or all of which might be true, but even if they’re not, this is still how it can/will come across:

  • This stuff is really hard, so much so that not even the presenter can get it right all the time. That means it’s REALLY hard. Matter of fact, if you don’t have the notes, you may as well just abandon hope, all ye who try to recreate this demo at home.
  • This presenter doesn’t really know the thing they’re trying to demo. I mean, if this isn’t that hard, but you’re using notes, how often have you actually ever done this? Matter of fact, how often have you even used this thing? Are you actually qualified to talk about this stuff at all?!?
  • This presenter hasn’t really practiced this demo at all, so they need the notes to remind themselves of everything they need to do during the demo. And if you haven’t practiced it at all, then how much practicing did you do for the talk as a whole? (It’s just inviting the audience to examine and criticize the talk with a keener eye.)
  • The thing I am demoing is so new and/or so fragile, if the speaker deviates from any part of the happy path, the results are likely to be as spectacular and unpredictable as they are wrong.

Is this what you’re trying to communicate to the audience?

On top of all that, what’s the first thing the audience is going to want from you after the talk? Those very same notes, so that they can follow the notes when they try to do the demo themselves at home, after the talk. Are you prepared to give them up?

If yes, then put them into a README and put the whole thing up onto GitHub. Then you can reference your README in front of the crowd, and everybody feels like they’re back ontp a level playing field.

If no, then figure out how to do the demo without having to refer to the notes, because the attendees will feel cheated and/or shorted when you refuse to turn them over. Even if you say, “Oh, these are just personal notes, it’s not that hard, you shouldn’t need them”, it doesn’t work; in that particular case, attendees know you’re LYING, you liar liar pants on fire, because you needed them yourself!

Most of the time, speakers I talk to say they want the notes because they are afraid of bombing a demo and looking bad in front of the audience. Audiences don’t care that much if you bomb a particular demo—they are willing to forgive a mistake or two, so long as it doesn’t deviate from the flow and pace of the talk as a whole.

Just say no to speaker notes in any form.