The right way to use notes in a presentation

Rather than relying on a full script—or, far worse, reciting your PowerPoint text verbatim—jotting down a few outline points can trigger your memory and keep you fluidly rolling along.

Most of today’s presentations are delivered from notes.

Such an approach allows speakers to benefit from having the best of two worlds: a well-organized structure and a conversational tone.

Notes typically take the form of bulleted lists or outlines, but they can also include verbatim passages for quotes, excerpts or transitions that require precision.

If your preference is to begin by writing a complete script before whittling it down, that’s fine—but as you rehearse, eliminate as many words as possible, keeping only what’s necessary to trigger your memory. Think of those triggers like golf strokes: the fewer, the better.

If I were delivering the previous lesson to a live audience, my notes might look as follows:

Choose method of delivery:

  • Script, notes, teleprompter or memory?
  • Consider format, goals, audience
  • Precision vs. connection

Print your notes in a large font on 8½” x 11″ paper or notecards. Number the pages in case they fall out of sequence. If you’re using PowerPoint, mark on your notes where to click each slide; I use the abbreviation “PPT,” bold it, and highlight it in yellow.

Rather than holding your notes—which can distract the audience and inhibit your body language—set them atop a table, a stool or your laptop. (Avoid resting them on a lectern, as it’s usually best to speak without one.) Discuss the room setup in advance with the person handling logistics to ensure you have what you need come presentation day.

Some speakers add extra words to their PowerPoint decks so their slides can double as their notes. For a variety of reasons, that’s often a bad idea. (Words on the screen should be added solely for the audience’s benefit, not yours.)

A better option is to use PowerPoint’s “notes” feature, in which you can enter your memory triggers beneath each slide. You can print a “notes page” version—one page per slide—which contains both an image of the slide being projected to the audience and its related notes, which are visible only to you.

Most speakers maintain their audience connection better when using a printed version of their notes rather than straining to read the notes directly from their laptop’s screen.

The grocery cart rule

You may have experienced that panic-inducing moment during a presentation when, as you’re finishing one point, you realize that you have no idea what your second point was supposed to be. At that moment—when you’re having an almost out-of-body experience in which your mouth is finishing the first point while your mind is scrambling for the second—remember what one client described as his “Grocery Cart Rule.”

He said that when he goes shopping, he pulls one item off the shelf, places it securely into the cart, and then—and only then—reaches for the next item he wants to purchase.

One benefit of using notes is that you can approach your presentations in much the same way. If you forget your second point as you’re finishing the first, stay in the moment. Complete the first point with all the energy it deserves.

Once you’ve completed it, let the room go silent for a few moments. Calmly glance down, spot your next memory trigger, look back up, wait a beat—and then introduce your next point.

Brad Phillips is president of Phillips Media Relations, which specializes in media and presentation training. He is author of the Mr. Media Training Blog, (where a version of this article originally appeared) and two books: “The Media Training Bible” and “101 Ways to Open a Speech.”

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