Biting the Bulletpoint: Scripts vs. Speakers Notes


A common thing you’ll hear from almost every business presenter (myself included) is this:   “I’m much better when it’s a conversation, when I don’t have to follow a script.”   This is because, for the most part, in business we’re not giving speeches… we’re having public conversations.  However, there are many situations that demand notes — detailed notes or even scripts — and in those situations we must find ways to balance the competing demands of having a predictable, pre-determined message while maintaining an authentic, unscripted voice.

Who Demands the Pre-Determined Message?

Every so often when delivering a training program on the topic of presentation skills, I find myself working with senior executives who live under a microscope.  These executives must communicate under intense scrutiny from external parties, such as various third-party organizations, government regulators or journalists. These are high pressure situations where every word counts.  In those situations, the executive will need a script to follow and the audience usually expects a degree of formality or “scriptedness” to the presentation.

Sometimes, however, the executive’s “regulators” are in-house – committees of people who want to make sure that they “message correctly” and “tell the story” using “the right language.”   In those situations, not every word counts, but there is a high level of pressure being created by the self-justifying process of intense quality control.   In those situations, having a scripted tone to the presentation would be a tragedy of the asymptotic curve of perfectionism:  By trying to make it perfect, you don’t just get diminishing returns on your effort… you risk killing the whole thing.

Words and Wandering Eyes

In the former situation — e.g. the senior executive at a press conference — a teleprompter is sometimes available.  The teleprompter allows the speaker to make eye contact with the audience while reading a word-for-word script.  Eye contact is important for the audience’s perception of the speaker’s connectedness. Eye contact also helps the speaker maintain a conversational tone with the audience.

The challenge, of course, is that most speakers don’t get to have a teleprompter.

Why not just read off a piece of paper?  Well, you might think that with just a bit of practice, anybody can stare at a sheet of paper and read paragraphs of text with a conversational tone.  You’d be right. Not only that, with a lot more practice (some would say an unreasonable amount of practice, depending on the stakes involved) a person can even read off a piece of paper while periodically looking up and good eye contact with an audience, effectively memorizing the lines being delivered. The challenge is in the amount of effort that this approach requires — sticking to a script while forcing one’s voice and eye contact to appear natural.  However, that’s not the only problem with reading off a piece of paper.

Requiring that a speaker access the words from a page right in front of them will inhibit gestures and movement (for many speakers, an important source of vocal energy) and mess with the speaker’s eye-accessing cues.

Eye-accessing cues are a subtle, but often very important way that a speaker keeps their natural tone of voice, by “accessing” certain information with their eyes from the distance in front of them… eye-accessing cues are usually very quick… but are long enough to throw the speaker off script.  In this way, paper scripts — and sometimes even rough notes — can mess a speaker up. When you hear a speaker stumble, especially where it’s apparent that they’ve “lost their place” in the words of a script, it’s often because of their eye-accessing cues.

Another common situation:  If the speaker must refer to a visual such as a diagram, the most natural way for the speaker to talk the audience through that diagram is for them to be able to look at the diagram periodically as they refer to it. Once again, a verbose script will get in the way of doing that.

Therefore, in the absence of teleprompters, what most speakers need — if they want to get the message relatively consistent — are good notes.

How to Make Good Speaker’s Notes?

Good notes allow the speaker’s eyes to wander off the page while keeping the speaker on track.

Good notes contain just enough information

that the speaker can hold in their memory

at a glance.

Good notes also provide a structure that helps the eyes follow along, by being

  • clear
  • easy-to-navigate
    • hierarchical
    • sequential
  • concise

..which is why bullet points are so popular.

Unfortunately, bullet points get abused and misused in speaker’s notes, as well as on slides for an audience.

  • People forget the point of bullet points
  • It’s not to break sentences up into a list format
  • Especially if those sentences are still sentences

Rather, bullet points (used correctly) are meant to help the eye spend less time searching the page for the next idea.

Expanding into Two Dimensions and Beyond

We’ve covered some of the dynamics of scripts and speaker’s notes, why these matter and what they can do to a speaker and their ability to connect with an audience.

We’re looking for ways other than a script to keep a speaker on track, while giving them the freedom to speak naturally.

Sentence fragments and bullet points are about as far as you can go if you’re constrained to a linear text space, such as in the slide Notes field of MS PowerPoint.

On the other hand, if you want really good speaker’s notes — the kind that work well with your eyes and with your brain — you want to expand into two dimensions (or more) by using flowcharts,  mind maps and memory palaces.

In the spirit of one thought one post, however, I save expanding on those for a future posting…

..yes, the Wikipedia links will have to suffice for now…

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About danspira

My blog is at: http://danspira.com. My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on November 19, 2011, in Communication Skills, Information Design, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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