How to use notes when presenting

If you’re addressing a new subject matter or a new group, having key words and phrases just a glance away can keep your presentation smooth—and keep you from sweating right through your suit.

It’s OK to use notes when presenting, especially if you’re speaking on a new topic or to a new audience.

The key to using notes effectively is what is included in your notes and how you use them. The following 10 tips will help you use notes effectively to remember the key points of your presentation, so you can deliver your message to your audience clearly and within the time limit.

1. Notes are not a full script.

Notes should not contain the script of your entire presentation, typed out word-for-word, on multiple pages. If you’re reading every word of the script, you’re usually not making eye contact or using gestures because your attention is on the script rather than on the audience. If you do look up at the audience, it will be almost impossible to find your place in the script again. I’ve seen speakers flip through multiple pages, looking for their place, which flusters them and distracts the audience. (These tips do not apply, of course, if you are using a teleprompter, which would contain the entire script.)

2. Write out your opening line and your message.

Instead of writing out every word, write out your opening line and your one-sentence message—the point of your presentation. Yes, it’s OK to memorize these lines if you need to. With practice, you should be able to deliver them without looking at your notes, but it’s good to have them written out in case you get nervous. Having a strong opening will build your confidence and make a good first impression on the audience.

3. Use keywords and phrases for major points and transitions.

For each section of your presentation, write out phrases or key words for each major point and supporting material. Also, write out the transition to the next section. Separate sections in your notes with blank lines, indentation, or whatever will signal to you to pause, regroup, and then move on to the next section.

4. Write out your closing line.

Write out your closing line for the same reason that you wrote out your opening line—to anchor your presentation and leave a good last impression on the audience. In your closing line, restate your message and include your call to action.

5. Write your notes in large font.

The goal is for you to be able to look down at your notes and quickly find your place and the relevant phrase, so the font should be large enough that you can do this easily. How large the font should be depends on your eyesight, whether you use reading glasses, the lighting in the room, etc.

6. Put your notes on cardstock.

Print your notes on standard printer paper, and then tape or glue them onto heavy cardstock paper (found in any office supply store). Heavy cardstock won’t blow away if there if there’s strong air movement from the fan or air conditioning vent. You can also hold the cardstock with one hand and still read it while gesturing or holding the microphone with the other.

7. Size matters.

Ideally, the size should be a standard sheet of paper, 8½ X 11 (A4 size) or smaller. Use both sides if necessary. If your notes don’t fit, then you have too many words in your notes.

8. Write in reminders.

Once your notes are attached to the cardstock, write out any reminders to yourself, like “breathe” or “smile.” You can also draw out any graphics that you will use, for example, a diagram that you will put on a flipchart.

9. Practice with notes.

It will be almost impossible to deliver an effective presentation with notes if you don’t practice. The goal is not to memorize every word of your presentation, but to get comfortable saying it a variety of ways and using your notes to remember the keywords, phrases, and transitions.

10. Don’t write all your notes out on your slides.

Writing out all your notes on the slides that you present to the audience will be too much material for the slides. Remember, you are the presentation; the slides are just visual aids. If everything is written out on your slides, then why would we need you? (Those slides would be impossible to read anyway.)

Used effectively, notes can be a part of a successful presentation. Following these suggestions will help you remember the key points of your presentation so you can deliver your message to your audience clearly and within the time limit.

A version of this article first appeared on Gilda Bonanno.

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