Public Speaking Tips: It’s OK to Use Notes

Remember the minor scandal that erupted when President Obama and Chief Justice John Roberts flubbed the lines of the Oath of Office in 2009? Afterward I suggested that it would have been wise for Roberts to have used a script or at least had some notes handy if he needed to consult them. The problem with reciting legalistic language like an oath–or wedding vows, for that matter–is that you have to get it exactly right, even though it doesn’t exactly sound or feel natural. Otherwise you run the risk of having to redo the ceremony (like they did at the White House in 2009), just to make sure it takes.

So I was excited to see that the official swearing on Sunday went off without a hitch, and that Roberts had come to his senses and used notes. Too bad they didn’t leave it at that. Unfortunately, the big ceremonial oath that was televised on Monday didn’t go quite as smoothly. Obama gets a little lost and swallows his words on the phrase “the office of President of the United States.” It wasn’t a disaster, but I’m sure it wasn’t the performance he wanted to give. Especially after what happened four years ago. At least this time they had the sense to hold the legal ceremony the day before.

It just goes to show you that even talented people who are used to speaking in public can get flustered by the stress of important events. If you have to make a public statement that you have to get exactly right, if the stakes are high or if the words you have to say are complicated or hard to remember because they aren’t your own, there’s no shame in using notes to help you keep your place. If you’re introducing someone and there’s even a remote chance that you’ll get their name wrong, please just write it somewhere that you’ll have it in front of you. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been introduced as “Corey.”

You certainly don’t want to read an entire speech to an audience without ever making eye contact with them, but notes, an outline, or a short text that you want to quote verbatim can be very helpful. Just try to use them unobtrusively and naturally. Chances are people won’t even think twice about it, and using a few notes are definitely better than potentially provoking a constitutional crisis.

2013 Inaugural Oath of Office

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