Asking someone “What kind of notes should I speak from?” is like asking someone else to buy shoes for you. Speaker’s notes are ultimately a matter of fit and comfort. Notes must be adapted to each speaker’s personal preference and speaking style. The following tips can help you take your notes, and your presentation, to the next level. Read on to find your fit.
Avoid using a manuscript.
One of the worst things you can do as a speaker is read to your audience. A presentation is a performance. Content should be delivered, not read. TEDX speaker, Myisha Cherry says that speakers should “aim for connection over perfection.” If you have a manuscript of your speech, it will be tempting to read from it because you want to get it perfect. But when you read from a manuscript, you aren’t flexible to respond to audience feedback, and you aren’t able to move around much. You aren’t connecting.
This can be tough for people who like to write a presentation out word-for-word. I get it. I’m one of those people. Words, precise words, matter to me. However, I’ve learned to use writing as a process of invention but then I know I must move past that to delivery. That means, I have to leave the perfect manuscript behind and speak from notes that allow me to connect with my audience.
Make them your own.
There is no rule that says your notes have to look a certain way. My father is a pastor-turned-university president. I’ve heard him deliver hundreds of messages. And I know what his notes look like. They are always handwritten on the blank, back side of scrap 8.5 x 11” paper from his office. They are always numbered, and they sometimes have things crossed out or scribbled in the margins. It’s the picture of his process. While others might find his method archaic or ineffective, it’s the method that works for him. If you find the notes you are speaking from aren’t working for you, change them! Your notes are your tool. Don’t be afraid to try new strategies until you find a method that works. Use color, visuals, different texts, varied sizes—whatever works best for you.
Be aware of both the power and problems of technology.
Unlike my father, many speakers like to use technology for their speaker’s notes. In most cases, that works great. There are many programs that will help make your job as a speaker easier. If you need more information about how to craft notes in a presentation program like PowerPoint, check out this quick tutorial from Microsoft. If you are someone who prefers technology-based notes to hard copies, that’s fine. However, be aware of the issues that could arise with delivering from technology-based notes: things like batteries dying or poor connectivity or screens freezing up. Remember that technology works great until it doesn’t. Just be prepared in case it doesn’t.
Be comfortable enough to speak without them.
After you’ve written and developed your speech, create your notes and start using them to practice. In a study by Rice University, researcher and professor Fred Oswald found that, “Deliberate practice was a strong overall predictor of success in many performance domains, and not surprisingly, people who report practicing a lot generally tend to perform at a higher level than people who practice less.” That means that your notes should never take the place of preparation or practice. You should be comfortable enough with your presentation that the notes serve more as a security blanket than a crutch. Have them there “just in case,” but don’t lean on them heavily. How do you know if you are ready to wean yourself off of your notes? Practice your presentation the last 5-10 times sans notes. If you can smoothly deliver the message without your notes, you are ready.
Design them thoughtfully.
Finally, remember to set yourself up for success by keeping a few basic strategies in mind.
- Number your notes in case they get dropped or shuffled.
- Only write on one side so you don’t have to flip pages from front to back which can be both confusing for you and distracting for the audience.
- Opt for index cards if you want to hold them in your hand. The smaller size is less distracting and it won’t be noticeable if your hands are shaking like it will be if you are holding a printer-sized piece of paper.
- Remember that notes aren’t just for content clues. You can write nonverbal cues like “smile,” “make eye contact,” or “pause often” on your cards. Some speakers even like to include pictures of their family or write brief self-affirmations to help ease presentation anxiety.
Whatever style or method you prefer, good notes can help you be a better presenter. We might adapt Franz Kafka’s popular advice: “Better to have, and not need, than to need, and not have” to fit our purposes. Better to have effective notes and not need them, than to need effective notes and not have them.
Want more practical tips for increasing your power as a speaker? Check out our online presentation skills course now.