Style - Part 2 - Relying less on notes

I spoke in my last post about “style,” the way you present yourself while giving a speech  general. I wrote that the ideal style for delivering a debate speech is naturalistic style similar to how you would speak in normal circumstances, but that this is difficult.  

Today I want to talk about a specific issue that is very common among debaters, relying too much on their notes which then harms their speaking style and therefore their overall persuasiveness.  


Over reliance on notes 

A lot of debaters, particularly when they first start, out will write out their speeches word for word, then stand up and read them out from their printed notes or laptop. This happens especially often for constructive speeches because those require the least improvisation and responses to the other side.

Reading from a written speech can be helpful in allowing you to remember everything, but it can change the way you speak in ways that makes it less persuasive.

In many ways, even for languages that are mostly phonetic like English the spoken and written forms are very different, to the extent they could be considered different languages entirely, or different dialects of the same language. Normal speech contains a huge number of subtle features that aren’t included in its written form, like the tiny differences in speed of speech, pauses and tone changes we use to put emphasis on different words.

You can often tell someone is reading from a script because they don’t speak in the normal rhythm, or emphasise things correctly. Instead they just say all the words one after another in a continuous flow, giving the same timing and tone to each of them (if you’ve ever heard a bad computer text to speech program you’ll have some idea).

Normally when we speak we haven’t planned out in our heads every single word we are going to say and the order in which we will say them. But instead we fill in the little words like conjunctions, prepositions, etc as we go along. We also use filler words and sounds like “uh,”“umm,” “like,” and “so.” Which also form part of the rhythm of speech. These are fine used sparsely, though avoid using them too much, as they can become distracting and give the impression of nervousness.

There are also elements of written language that sound weird when spoken aloud. In written text we will often use long sentences with lots of subclauses, asides, listing, etc. that we wouldn’t use in spoken language. We would normally use shorter, clearer, simpler sentences when speaking aloud.

This difference is partly a product of how people read, you can flick your eyes back to the beginning of a sentence easily so take in the whole context. Also saying a single long continuous sentence out loud would mean you would run out of breath. On a larger scale, the structure of paragraphs in written documents changes the way we lay out our ideas, you can get away with less context and explanation when people can go back to the beginning and reread.  

A useful way to make your speeches sound more natural is to not write out every word in advance, but instead write out key words, phrases, figures, bullet points etc. In the order in which you will make the argument. Then you improvise the grammatical structure around them, filling in all the little words like “is,” “are,” “then,” and “and.” With a little practice you will be able to generate a natural sounding speech that contains the key points and topics.

For example I might have as my notes:

  • Multinationals good for health because infrastructure

  • MNCs need roads, etc

  • Pay to build

  • Others can use

  • Doctors and medicine can travel

Rather than: When a multinational company does business in another country, it uses important infrastructure. Companies may pay for building roads and power lines, but even if they don’t, they pay the companies that provide these services, which gives those companies money to expand. To have a factory that operates internationally, you need a cheap way to move goods internationally, and a way to exchange information.​This same infrastructure is also used by the medical community. Container ships that bring iPads one way can bring medicine back, and airlines that carry businessmen can also carry doctors.”

After some practice you will generate your own habits of shorthand and codes for writing things down. Also over time you learn which are the important parts of the argument to take note of and which to skip.


This has several benefits:

Because you are generating words as you go they will sound more natural and sincere than they would otherwise. You sound more credible, and more like you know what you are talking about when you are improvising than when you are obviously reading from a script.

This also means you can fit more information onto a page of notes and write new notes more quickly than if you are writing out every single word (which is very useful for rebuttal, summaries and final focus).

This also makes your speeches more flexible. When you are used to having every word written out in order, it is more difficult to reorder your points, or add in new ones. But if you are working from a list of bullet points you can change more easily in response to what your opponent says, or news ideas you come up with.

Practising this also makes it easier to transition to things like crossfire where you have to completely improvise.


Tips and tricks

It is better to take notes in the language you are going to be speaking in even if you might normally be more comfortable writing in another. Because it is difficult to translate between languages while also speaking.  

Personally, when I debated competitively (shortly after we invented fire) I would use different coloured pens and highlighters to identify constructive, rebuttal, key points, etc. With arrows and other scribbled marks drawn between them. I found it best to take a sheet of paper for each point, with the headline written clearly at the top in big letters (so I didn’t lose it while speaking). You should experiment and find the things that work best for you.  

If you find speaking from bullet points difficult to start with, try transitioning into it by taking a fully written speech and highlighting the important words and phrases. From that you can gradually rely less on having everything written down.

You can also practice delivering speeches without any notes at all. An exercise I used to do with the kids I coached in London was to have them stand up, give them a topic (something simple like “my pets” or “my favourite food”), a few seconds to prepare then start talking. Its quite scary at first, but you soon develop the skill of improvising as you go along.


What about you guys? What tips and tricks have you found for making your notes easier to use, remembering your points or sounding more persuasive? Tell us in the comments box. 

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