“I am 59 years old; I have always used notes when making a business presentation; I cannot imagine a situation in which I could give a presentation without using notes”. This is one of the more extreme protestations that I have received while coaching senior business people in Presentation Skills.
It often comes in the form of angst or protest because they know inside themselves it’s not right. At worst you are going to end up simply reading from a script, so why bother with a presentation? Why not simply send your script by email and save everyone’s time? At best you will be deprived of one of your most essential and powerful engagement tools – eye contact.
Knowing that I need to help them progress step-by-step, I usually respond to the protests along the lines of: “I’ll do a deal with you. As long as you can deliver your opening and closing without notes, you can do what you like in between.” What this does is to cover off the two most important parts of the presentation, which we have discussed before (here). Rule 13 of the Rules of Magic says: ‘Firsts and lasts are remembered’.
Over and above being remembered, it is crucial that you engage your audience at the outset – and you are not going to achieve that if you are looking down at a bunch of notes! I worked recently with a group of mature students who were finishing off at university having gained PhDs. Almost without exception, they seemed unable to tell us their names, let alone their area of expertise without appearing to refer to notes! And that is one of the problems with notes, or indeed a screen – when you have them there your gaze tends to wander in their direction as a kind of comfort blanket. I addressed my PhD group collectively: “Look here, you lot. You are being coached in Presentation Skills because you are all at the top of your game and the time has come for you to go out and tell the world about it. But no one is going to believe a word you say if you have to check your notes for who you are and what you do!” We worked on their opening and closing passages and as soon as they achieved proper engagement with energy, full eye contact and a sense of ‘owning the space’, I accorded due respect and started to address each of them as ‘Doctor’.
Closing is every bit as important as opening because that is the moment – if your presentation is properly structured – at which you deliver your ‘Call to Action’ which probably means you are asking for something or seeking commitment. You simply cannot do that in any way that is effective without full eye contact and speaking straight from your heart – rather than your notes.
So what happens when I do allow the use of notes in between the opening and closing? I plan to cover that in my next post, but I often find that by promising people they can use notes in the middle I have actually ‘tricked’ them out of using notes at all. By opening without notes they gain confidence and start to enjoy themselves, soon finding they don’t really need them after all.
I would like to be able to conclude by saying that this is what happened with the 59-year old extreme case on which I opened. What actually transpired was a bit different. He rang me after delivering the big presentation we had been working on. He thanked me for my advice and said he had changed ‘almost everything’, with great results. When I asked about notes he went a little coy, saying: “Would you believe it, I dropped my notes all over the floor, soon after my opening. I couldn’t stop and pick them up so I had to manage without them; and I did”! “That”, I replied “is what you call a happy accident”.