When I teach presentation skills classes, I frequently get asked the question, "Should I use notes in my presentation?" [Said in a tone of voice that assumes the correct answer is no]. For some misguided reason, people seem to think that if they are delivering a presentation or a speech, they need to be able to do it completely from memory, sans notes. They seem to think notes are cheating or make them look like they're unsure of their material.
Well, my answer to the question, "Should I use notes?" is a resounding "Yes." Notes are useful on two levels: practical and perceptual.
Practically, having notes takes the pressure off having to remember every fact, as well as the order and flow, of what you are presenting. Perceptually, having notes provides a security blanket. If you don't need them, fine. But if you do lose your place or forget what you wanted to say, a quick look at the notes rectifies the situation.
Memorization, which some regard as the gold standard, is fraught with problems. Assuming you are capable of memorizing a 30-plus minute speech, if you draw a blank or get a section out of order, you're in trouble. A memorized delivery also runs the risk of losing the inflection and tone that makes you sound fully present and connecting with the audience.
TYPES OF NOTES
Now that I hope I've persuaded you to use notes, the next decision is what type of notes should you use. That depends on the kind of presentation, your own personal style, and to a lesser extent, the physical venue.
3x5 or 4x6 cards work well as a way to remind yourself of the key messages of your presentation or important facts, statistics and quotes. Because you can't write much on the small cards, they are most effectively used as a prompt to keep you on track and jog your memory. This format is appropriate in most situations, whether you're presenting from a stage in a conference center or from the head of the boardroom table. [Hint: number the cards. In the unikely event that you drop them, you'll be glad you did.]
8.5x11 SHEETS OF PAPER
This is not a format I recommend. This size is too large to be held comfortably in your hands. It also provides room for way too much content, thereby tempting you to read from it. The place where this format could work is when you have the sheets in a 3-ring binder and it sits on the table in front of you, where you can refer to it periodically.
Using the notes field on PowerPoint can be effective, but there is a major shortcoming. It often means that you have way too many slides; you've created slides to accommodate your notes, where you might otherwise not have used a slide. [Click here to learn about the Presenter's View.]
Using the actual slides as your notes is something I strongly recommend against. Chances are it will encourage you to put excessive text on each slide. As well, it will create a temptation to read off the slides, possibly even turning to the screen behind you, instead of focusing your attention on the audience.
Here are some more great tips on creating notes from Olivia Mitchell at Speaking About Presenting.
HOW TO USE NOTES
Once you decide which note format is most comfortable for you, you now have to learn to use it so that it supports your presentation rather than detracts from it. When using notes you should:
- Never write in full sentences. Simply jot down key phrases or headlines in bullet form. The point of the notes is to jog your memory. They shouldn't be so complete that someone else could pick them up and get the meat of your presentation.
- Make sure your notes are easy to read, which means writing large enough and leaving lots of white space.
- Learn how to interact with the physical cards, slides or paper. Don't shuffle the cards, don't switch them from hand to hand, don't gesture with them, don't keep putting them in and pulling them out of a pocket. Don't let cards or paper or computer screen obscure your face.
- Remember it's OK to look at your notes...that's what you have them for and the audience will be perfectly fine with it. But do so in a deliberate manner; don't glance surreptitiously at them as if you're trying to make it seem that you're not consulting them. Break eye contact with the audience, glance at your notes and absorb the next point, then re-establish eye contact with the audience and deliver that section. The pause may seem particularly long to you, but it doesn't to the audience. And it will give them an opportunity to process what you've just said.
- Practice, practice, practice until you can use your notes smoothly and seamlessly.
If you follow the advice above and remember to keep your focus on the audience, notes will become another excellent tool in your presentation tool kit.