Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Speaking With Notes: 7 Best Practices

Every speaker speaks with notes - even the ones that insist notes shouldn't be used at all!

When speaking 'without notes', our brains are still referring back to what we have written in preparation for the speech, or referencing touchpoints in the room that represent tentpoles in their presentation. Even if you are speaking off the cuff, you are pulling information out of your head as fast as possible, essentially looking for notes in the broad files of your brain.

Without getting mired too far into the neuroscience of note usage, let's look at ways you can use notes effectively in your presentations.

1. 4x6 Cards
I prefer these to 3x5 as they allow for a larger font to be used, and are easier to sort through. To effectively use cards, print one point per card - one sentence only that will trigger the segment you've practiced 100 times. Triggers get you to the story, and prevent you from reading from the card. At most, have a short Transition sentence and the Trigger on each card, to help you go from one point to the next.

In addition to Triggers and Transitions, quotes that must be read correctly belong on notecards, as well as statistics, research attributions, poems - anything that must be word for word.

I find that printing my notes in 36 pt. type or more on the computer, then cutting and pasting it to each card keeps my notes legible, and allows me to hold the cards further away, so as not to obscure my face or mouth as I refer to them.

2. 8 1/2 x 11 Sheets
Loose leaf, heavier stock, 36 pt. type or more. Keep these on a lecturn or table that can serve as 'home base' between segments. Avoid notebooks, particularly spiral bound. Folding the sheets into half-sheets will make them less obtrusive, if you must carry them around with you.

In the picture above, President Bush has the right idea - big type for visibility, but it isn't all that readable, and could potentially cause readability and flow problems for him as he looks back towards them on the fly.

Content-wise, the rules for sheets mirror the rules for cards - Triggers, Transitions, and information that must be exact.

3. Symbols
An old memorization technique, that isn't memorization at all, but simply symbolic notes, is to assign your speech parts to objects, or places in the room or on the stage. Taking note of your surroundings, and assigning each plant or corner or picture in the room a part of your speech allows the room you are in to become a giant cheat sheet. Even sticking colored felt shapes around parts of the stage can serve as quick mental triggers as you move through your content.

4. PowerPoint
Sad as it is, PowerPoint is a tried and true crutch to get you from point A to point Z in your speech. I'll discuss PowerPoint later on this week - you must be cautious that points A-Z don't result in simply snore-filled Z's instead!

5. Using the Audience
If you have handouts with your points on them, you can actually create audience involvement by having them remind you of your next point. Perhaps award someone in the room the right to be your prompter. It gets the audience involved, and can provide an opportunity for both interaction and humor throughout the speech.

6. Proper Eye Contact
It's easy to anticipate your need to use a notecard as you complete a point, resulting in you ending your final sentence as you look at the card for your next statement. This weakens your voice and posture, leading to a weakened point at the end of your last segment. When using notes, always finish the last statement with your eyes out on the audience, pause to emphasize the point, then move to the next card.

7. Practice, Edit, Practice Again.
The tighter the flow of your speech, the less need you will have for notes. The more you practice, the less the crutches of notecards, loose sheets, Power Point, etc. remain necessary.

Speaking with notes is not the end of the world. Being tied to notes, distracted by notes, and hidden by notes is pretty close, however. Don't be afraid or embarrassed to use notes, but practice with them, and use best practices as you take them on stage. Notes or not, you are expected, by your audience, to go out and Speak...and Deliver!


  1. Great post Rich. I totally agree with you about what to put on your notes. I think of it as high-level points and low-level detail (that you need to get right)- and nothing in between.


  2. Oooooooh! A big BIIIIGGG thing missed out! ;)

    When you use index cards (particularly)... the first thing you should do is number them and put a Treasury Tag through a hole in the corner, because as sure as God made little green apples at some point you're gonna drop the buggers! ;) :) :O


  3. Hi Rich

    Nice post - sometimes I forget that there *are* graceful ways of using physical notes.

    I do agree with Simon R though - numbering is key! That was the first thing I thought of when I saw your photo of President Bush, above: anyone who's ever been around a music stand knows how fickle those can be at the seemingly straightforward task of holding onto bits of paper ;)


  4. Thank you for the post Rich.

    During my last speech I did engage an audience member who I had shared a quote with that my memory stumbled upon at every practice. This strategy worked well...he prompted me and it did create a pause and positive interaction with my audience.


  5. Simon & Chris - yes, I agree numbering is crucial, both for the cards, and on the points listed on paper sheets. It's faster to find the number than the place on the page on the fly.

    Thanks for the reminder! :)

  6. Great Post Rich,
    Yes numbering and Large Fonts are key when you use Notes.
    Practice, Practice, Practice and most of the time, you will find the notes, just are there as a crutch for you. You won't really use them.

    I often times take them, but never even look.

  7. I just returned from a major student speaking competition in Australia where the judges told contestants to use small (invisible to the audience) palm cards, not the larger 3 x 5 ones. I think it's silly to pretend you don't have notes and conceal them in your hand - why not be open about it. What do others think?

  8. Ms. Duffy,

    I would agree, for speaking in general. Creates a bit of a question in the audiences mind, I would think "Why are they always looking at their palm?"!

    But, in a judged scenario, better to go with the judges advice, in this case at least. Better yet, go with no notes at all.

  9. Thanks for addressing the issue of notes, Rich. People are so hung up on whether or not to use them and they don't think about the "how."

    I agree with Ms. Duffy; I've never understood the point of pretending we don't have notes. Sure, they should be unobtrusive and not distracting, but I'm all for being open and honest with the audience. Most of the time, I hardly use them, but I believe that it's better to bring them in case of unforeseen circumstances.

    I also number my points; I use 8 1/2 x 11 paper, but never more than two double-sided with large text (and that's for a half- or whole-day workshop). For a short presentation, one piece of paper, period. That way I never have to worry about mixing up the order of my notes. One or two sides, that's it.



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