A teleprompter and person reading from it on camera

How to use speaking notes and not sound like you’re reading

Feature image “Our shoot through teleprompter.” by ThisDayToday is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Public speaking is often referred to as the most common fear. Google gave me this random proof this morning, an 8-year-old Washing Post Article. In school it was a major fear of mine, which was sort of hypocritical since it was only being in front of the class or a group where I was nervous. From the back of the class, I often didn’t shut up until I was sent out of the class. I think this isn’t too different than my preference of written over verbal communication, but you are probably hear to learn about a technique to not sound like you are reading when you use speaking notes rather than hearing about my personality peccadilloes.

First, getting over the trepidation to speak in the first place is an accomplishment. The techniques to get over that vary from person to person, though it is fair to say that a key ingredient is being confident in your knowledge on the topic and then focusing on sharing that knowledge more than what people may think of you. It may be worth noting that confidence is often accepted as a replacement for competence, which is more important to the audience than the speaker. For the speaker, it is up to their own personal values and ability to know the difference (I’m digressing, which, my reader is used to by now, but I still need to apologize).

For myself, my fear was less about not knowing the topic than the audience not being interested or not believing I knew the topic. And I am amused to see I wrote that in the past tense…

Once you get over the fear or anxiety or panic (in worst cases) sufficiently to be in situation where you need to speak in public or present virtually some might think that is all it takes. Ha! What happens when, real or imagined, the fear comes to fruition? That they aren’t listening (or you don’t think they are because you can’t read their expressions or even see their faces), or don’t believe/agree with you (same input issues, different conclusion)? You might just plow on, feeling better or worse as you do, or you might give up (hopefully not because, trust me, it won’t get worse).  Assuming you survived (kidding…everyone survives, except some noted historical exceptions that are not relevant to this article and that are too dark for me to ever write about), the next step is to find ways to get better.

Most of my early speaking activities were in a teaching context. I either had a very deep understanding of the material or had learned it recently and intensely enough for it to be very fresh in mind. For these seminar and classes I would have a one page outline that I could leave somewhere within my vision and that was sufficient.

Old sample outline
Nest loop outline from a 1990 sales training

Age does not help eyesight, nor does improve focus if one has moved through many different fields and topics through the years, and I got to a point where the outlines were hard to read unless I used a very large font, and that they were insufficient as a speaking prompt either because the presentation was a condensation of a much larger body of material or a combination of being fairly recently planned and either new knowledge or knowledge gathered and distilled over a long time. Plus, my topics had moved from more academic areas into business and technology. I frequently had much less time to prepare and the outline format had me sounding like I was reading (which I was) and would sometime lose my place (which audiences take as low confidence). I needed a new approach.

The next level from an outline is bullet notes. Short sentences or snippets that act as prompts and keep the talk on track. Generally easier to read, and easily memorized so that a mere glance is sufficient to key the brain into what comes next and where it is at on the track.

  • Guided selling
  • Approval flows
  • Automated escalations
  • Not all CPQs have billing
  • Reporting and types of reporting
  • eSignature
  • Renewals (this could be CLM, CPQ, or both)

Bullet notes did the trick for a long time because of their simplicity, both in format and in management. Things evolve. It might be personal evolution, societal evolution, or (most likely) a mixture of both. In this case, evolution moves from speaking, teaching, or presenting and into interacting with knowledge. There is still a subject, and the nature of the discussion has a general structure, frequently as an agenda, but at any point in the agenda the focus can branch into both planned and unplanned areas. In some cases the discussion needs to return to the originally planned path, in others the sequence changes while the content remains the same, and sometimes the whole plan is out the door.

For that last one there is no substitute for knowledge and experience, even if it is the understanding that “let me get back to you on that” is generally better than faking it. For this shifting flow, I have adopted and adapted the notion of Bionic Reading® to a different style of preparation notes.  I found Bionic Reading Notes as a speed reading technique. I initially tried using the same format for speaking notes but it sounded like I was reading (because I was).

My reader may recognize the reference to Bionic Reading® from some of my recent certification prep articles where I convert my study notes to Bionic Reading® Notes.

Then I started bolding keywords. This has several advantages. Unlike my earlier use of outlines or bullets, I write out the entire content of what I intend to say. I then go through that content and bold key words and phrases. The process of doing so has multiple benefits. First, it helps me recognize patterns that may work well in writing but sound awkward in speaking. Also, it drives me to simplify the content when I notice that the keywords and phrases become overly dense. I shorten paragraphs so that these points stand out better as notes, and will sometimes put blank lines in the middle of a sentence to make it more readable as a note. One key thing is to avoid having the bold words too clumped, or else it is just reading bold text rather than triggering associations in the brain.

When time permits, I go through the content a second time and edit the content down, which makes for a better presentation and the keywords allow me to track where I am at in the presentation without having to read.

Admittedly, this type of note is easiest to use when speaking online, though I have used a tablet or laptop with face to face audiences, telling them up front that I will be occasionally referring to my notes.

I will leave you with an example of my notes from a recent proposal presentation and hope that you got something from this article:

Slide 7: 
It may seem like we have a lot of slides here. And some of the content may be repeated from different angles.
I will go through mine fairly quickly, so please interrupt me if there is something you want to spend more time on.
You probably already looked at the CPQ market and seen that there are a lot of options out there.
This busy slide lists 20 market leaders our of several hundred vendors with CPQ offerings.
CPQ is all about the process of getting from qualified prospect to repeat customer and it can be just as proprietary as the products and services that are being sold.
The differences between CPQ vendors can be:
  • industry focus,
  • role focus – whether it is oriented towards accounting, sales, or delivery,
  • ease of setup versus flexibility,
  • and if the flexibility is mainly in the product configuration, pricing structure, the approval flow, or all three.
The level and types of automation is another key differentiator and often heavily weighted in the evaluation.
Slide 8
For a business that uses Salesforce as their CRM, one CPQ differentiator is how it integrates with Salesforce. While there are a lot of nuances about application integration, there are three broad styles that are easier to manage on a score card.
Without going to deep into it, they are Native Apps, meaning the CPQ app is built entirely in Salesforce; Composite apps, where the CPQ application runs on a separate platform with varying levels of functionality available in the Salesforce UI, and Connectors, which can have varying complexities in their use.
The names of these categories can vary between marketing materials and documentation, as well as how they are defined. For example, there are many vendors that call their apps a Native App when it is really a Composite App, and Composite Apps that are little more than a Connector with very basic UI.
Slide 9
This is a sample of an executive overview, and part of the reason I risked boring you with the previous slide as the integration style can impact the other scoring factors. The factors used in the evaluation will be based on the workshops we have with your stakeholders and there are generally 3 or 4 times as many of them as will be in the overview slide that will list those with highest weight and variation between the top 5 options.
Slide 10
This is another sample of what will be in the executive summary where we will present the best 2 or 3 vendors and our recommendation.
The executive presentation will be backed by set of very through documentation that will be reviewed with your selected stakeholders.

Some variations in processes…
One difference between offerings is the process boundary.
Some start from lead qualification and others only when creating the order.
Some end with the final quote and others go through to renewals.
Different industries and different businesses have varying stages within the Configure, Price and Quote phases.
pre notes:
CPQ is about process. Automate the standard and escalate the exceptions.
The CPQ vendor market is huge because the process can vary between enterprises and business domains.
What is important is finding the balance between flexibility to suit individual needs and complexity to set up and manage. This is why the space is so large, with lots of niche players.
We will help to build the score card that best defines your needs with properly weighted categories to narrow the initial list of potential vendors  and then apply that score card to our understanding of the business capabilities and technical perspective to narrow it down to the best 2 to 5 options and our recommendation of the single the best choice from our understanding at that time.
© Scott S. Nelson

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