Giving a Speech: Read or Speak without Notes?

During the past few years, I have had the opportunity to give many speeches and lectures.  I wrestled with the question of whether to speak without notes, to speak from an outline, or to speak from a prepared text.  Having done all three, I have come down squarely on the side of speaking from a prepared text.

Most people, I think, intuitively disagree with that answer.  So, let me explain.

When people speak without notes, they have a great tendency to repeat themselves, to lose the organizational structure of what they are saying, or even to get stuck in pauses as they compose on the fly what they are going to say next.  They will also find it very difficult to hit a specific time for the speech with an appropriate introduction and conclusion.  There are people who can do it, but they are few and far between.  When speaking, the only people who should go without notes are the very best.  It’s like golf.  Most of us should punch a shot from the woods right back into the fairway rather than trying to play a line drive through the trees toward the hole.

Speaking with notes is better, but the problems of timing and composing on the fly still exist.  Ditto with repetition.  It is very hard to control these things without a ton of practice.  And I’m not sure how many of us have hours and hours to spend attempting to memorize a speech.  The time could be better spent on superior composition and crafting the message.

Speaking from a prepared text solves a lot of problems.  You will have organized it perfectly because you have written it and can easily read what you have written to see if it is clear and gets the message across.  It is easy to see if the speech matches the time allotted because you can simply time yourself in a run-through.  You won’t repeat yourself because you will be able to read the speech and see if you are repeating yourself.

Some are unconvinced because they can remember the horrible experience of watching someone read a speech.  And yes, it can be quite awful.  That is why a person who reads a speech must be able to look up frequently, vary the pitch, and provide emphasis where it is needed.  I have watched a recording of myself reading a speech.  It has become so natural for me that I do not look like a reader.

But the clincher for me is that William F. Buckley read his speeches (as he detailed in Cruising Speed).  He was an outstanding speaker.  Buckley insisted on a Q & A after each speech so the audience would see that he was capable of holding his own without a text.