Can I Use Notes While Speaking?

Using Notes While Speaking in Public – 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. 4×6 Cards.
I prefer these to 3×5 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. Handwritten notes, even written in large type, can be tough to read ‘in the moment’, so don’t let yourself be tempted to outline your speech at the last minute.

Remember to number your notes, in case of a case of the ‘drops’ before you hit the stage, or, in a worst case scenario, ON stage!

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.

Content-wise, the rules for sheets mirror the rules for cards – Triggers, Transitions, and information that must be exact. Number the points on the pages as well – scanning the notes will simplified if you’re looking for numbers in front of your segments.

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. You must be cautious that points A-Z don’t result in simply snore-filled Z’s instead! Suffice to say, don’t let your PowerPoint notes speak instead of YOU!

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!

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Rich Hopkins is an internationally award-winning speaker and speaking coach who believes you, yes you, have a message inside that only you can speak & deliver. He is the author of Go Ahead and Laugh, A Serious Guide to Speaking with Humor, and shares his experiences in the world of speaking at his blog

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