Article Category: Delivery Techniques

How to Use Notes in a Speech: A Guide for Speakers


Only one of the following statements is true. Do you know which one?

  1. You should never use notes because you will look unprepared.
  2. You should always use notes because memorization weakens your delivery.
  3. You should never use slide text as notes.

In this article, we identify scenarios where a full script is warranted or where memorization is advisable. For all your speaking scenarios in the middle, we discuss 21 tips for using notes effectively.

Full Script, Notes, or Nothing at all?

A previous Six Minutes article (how to read a speech) identified several speaking scenarios where reading a full script may be required or preferred:

  • You are speaking at a highly formal occasion (e.g. a commencement speech)
  • You are delivering a particularly emotional speech (e.g. a wedding speech, a eulogy)
  • You are forced to read word-for-word by lawyers or campaign managers (e.g. a corporate statement; a political speech)
  • speechwriter has written your speech.
  • Life prevented you from preparing adequately. (Don’t let this happen often… your speech really would go better if you prepare.)
  • You are a brand new speaker, and you haven’t developed the confidence yet to go without a script.

Likewise, there are speaking scenarios where it is highly desirable to avoid any notes and memorize your speech instead:

  • You are giving a TED talk (or speaking at a similar “ballroom” event) where you’ve got twenty minutes or less. These events set a high bar for preparation.
  • You are pitching to investors, potential customers, potential employers, or any type of career-shaping presentation. I would include many academic and industry conferences in this group, although some may have a less rigorous culture.
  • You are offering a short toast.
  • You are completing a course speech assignment, and you are not allowed to have notes.
  • Your speech is so short (~ six minutes or less) that you ought to be able to deliver without notes.

If we eliminate those two extremes (full script and no notes at all), we are left with a majority of speaking scenarios where using notes is perfectly acceptable. These include:

  • You are teaching a course, which is several hours or days in length.
  • You are delivering a keynote address or some other lengthy speech at a conference.
  • You are delivering a lunch-time seminar.
  • You are addressing a service club or community group.
  • You are delivering a webinar.
  • You are doing a routine presentation at your workplace.
  • Any other scenario where your speech is too long to memorize, but not formal enough to demand a full script.

If you are ever concerned about the culture and expectations for an event at which you are speaking, consult with the organizers. If this isn’t possible, err on the side of caution and be prepared to present either without notes or with absolute minimal notes.

Tips for Using Notes Effectively

If you decide to use notes for your presentation, you still have several choices to make. What medium do you choose? Can you use slide bullets for notes? Does it matter how your notes are formatted? What messages can you pass yourself within the notes? How do you deliver with notes in a way that doesn’t hamper your impact?

Choose the medium that suits your style.

The purpose of notes is to jog your memory, not provide lengthy passages to read.

  1. Use a classic: index cards.
    Many speakers–from elementary school students to career professionals–swear by index cards. If this is what you like, invest in a good hole punch and link all the cards together with a metal ring. This prevents the disastrous “Oh my! My cards are out-of-order” phenomenon.
  2. Go big (or at least letter-sized).
    Some people prefer using legal pads or standard letter-sized paper. The main advantage is that you can fit more on a page, so you won’t need to flip pages very often. For many presentations, a single one-sided page is all you’ll need.  [This is my personal preference.]
  3. Go little: sticky notes.
    I’ve seen a couple professional trainers work from a large cardboard “palette” covered with many little colored sticky notes, each with a word or phrase. As each topic was covered, the trainer adeptly moved the corresponding note to the “done” pile to keep track of what they had covered. This allows a highly adaptive presentation style where you can cover content in an audience-driven order or not-at-all.
  4. Go digital with a tablet.
    There are countless note-taking or outline apps that can do the job for you. Some people love that it’s paper-less; others worry about the device staying charged long enough to be useful. Having to “swipe” your device back on from a black screen every time you need to consult your notes could be annoying, for you and your audience.
  5. Use presentation software… but do it properly.
    If you are presenting visuals, then the notes feature of your presentation software (e.g. PowerPoint) can be used in two distinct ways. In the first method, you can print out a set of “notes pages” which combine the slide content with your notes content. In the second method, you can use “Presenter View” to display your slides for the audience and, simultaneously, your slides and notes for you. For a well-rehearsed speaker, this can work very well. (Don’t show up at the event expecting to learn it on the fly!) Finally, do not ever use text on slides themselves as your notes. Audiences universally hate this.

Design your notes for easy consumption.

Do not ever use text on slides themselves as your notes. Audiences universally hate this.

  1. Minimize the words.
    Remember that the purpose of notes is to jog your memory, not provide lengthy passages to read. Don’t use sentences; use keywords or phrases instead. For example, you might distill an entire talk into short notes like “crutch metaphor”, “dentist story”, or “personnel strategy”. Verbose notes leads to two equally bad outcomes: [1] lots of reading, and [2] a high likelihood that you’ll get lost in your notes.
  2. Maximize scan-ability.
    Regardless of which medium you choose, be sure to type or print as neatly as possible. The last thing you need to do during your presentation is to decipher a messy or handwritten notes page. Use the largest font you can, and plenty of white space.
  3. Format wisely to provide clues.
    Used strategically, formatting such as bold, italics, underline, and color or size variations allows you to convey meaning to your future self.
  4. Adjust with colored pens or highlighters.
    Let’s say you’ve got a nicely printed notes page, but while rehearsing you realize that it’s missing a few words or some emphasis. A little touch-up with a colored pen or highlighter will fix it. Avoid using light pencils as it can be hard to read and it is prone to smudge.
  5. Use meaningful layout.
    Mirror your speech outline in the notes. Assuming you’ve distilled each point (paragraph), anecdote, or story down to a few words, these can still be displayed in a hierarchy that mirrors your speech outline.
  6. Organize in whatever style works for you.
    Don’t be afraid to use any organization scheme that works for you. One of my speaking mentors sometimes uses a single-page mind map as her “notes” page. I don’t think this method would work for me, but it worked wonderfully for her. Experiment!

Use notes for strategic purposes.

  1. Use notes for other people’s words.
    You can memorize quotations or a short excerpt of another work (e.g. a poem, story, or news article). However, there’s virtually no down side to reading it from your notes instead. An added bonus is that it signifies the respect you have for the other author.
  2. Aim for precision.
    Similarly, facts, statistics, and definitions can be memorized (and definitely should be if they are used in your speech opening), but it’s often safer to just put them in your notes. Reading a statistic from a note (as opposed to memorizing it) signals that you value truth and precision over appearing polished and “smart”.
  3. Remind yourself to interact with audience.
    In the past, I was prone to forgetting things like polling the audience, or doing a brainstorm exercise on a flip chart. (I think these items are easy to forget because they are always skipped during rehearsal.) So, I developed a habit of inserting clues like “[POLL AUDIENCE!!!]” or “[FLIP CHART]” in my notes to remind me.
  4. Remind yourself about timing or logistics.
    When I teach courses that last several hours, my lesson plan includes a rough timing breakdown which tells me that I should complete the first section in twenty minutes, or complete the group exercise by the ninety minute mark, and so on. I insert these timing reminders right into my notes, and I do the same for other logistical reminders such as “[STRETCH BREAK]” or “[DISTRIBUTE 2nd HANDOUT]”.
  5. Spell unfamiliar words phonetically to aid pronunciation.
    In a 1963 speech from Berlin, U.S. President John F. Kennedy uttered the famous phrase “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a Berliner). President Kennedy desired to pronounce this phrase correctly, so he wrote the words out phonetically: “Ish bin ein Bearleener” (his handwriting is shown in the photograph below). Though I don’t recommend handwriting today, I’ve often used this trick as a Master of Ceremonies to avoid pronunciation mistakes when introducing other speakers.

Handwriting of President John F. Kennedy to indicate the correct pronunciation of several speech phrases.

Deliver with confidence.

  1. Don’t apologize for having notes.
    It’s okay to have notes. Really! I cringe whenever a speaker apologizes for “needing” notes… not because the apology is so tragic, but rather because it usually signifies a lack of confidence. Prepare and deliver to the best of your ability, and skip the apologies.
  2. Practice with your notes, and revise as necessary.
    Just as with visuals, props, or anything else you intend on having with you during your presentation, rehearse with your notes. As you practice, add keywords to your notes if there’s a point, a story, a transition, or anything else you tend to forget. If you’ve never used “Presenter Mode” with slides before, then practice!! I’ve seen dozens of people launch into this mode without any prior preparation, and it usually kills a few minutes pointlessly.
  3. Glance at your notes at natural breaks.
    When you are speaking, try to keep your eyes up on your audience. Take advantage of natural pauses to refer briefly to your notes. For example, when I teach courses, I tend to glance down just after I change the slide. At that moment, the audience will direct their attention to the new slide, so this is a perfect opportunity. Once you’ve finished, bring your head back up and begin speaking again.
  4. Avoid glancing at your notes at critical moments.
    Your opening, closing, and any other “core moment” should be delivered with confidence, and glancing at your notes at this time will detract.
  5. Put your notes down… if there’s a place to put them.
    If you carry your notes around, it can be a visual or auditory distraction. Also, if you’ve got anything in your hands for a long period of time, it tends to limit natural gestures. If there’s a lectern, table, or any convenient surface, that will work. But if there is literally no where to put the notes, then just hold your notes in your hand. (Don’t put them on the floor. Bending down repeatedly will lead to awkward moments that are best avoided.)

Put in into Practice

Think about the next presentation you are scheduled to deliver.

  • Are notes appropriate for this setting?
  • How can you improve the content of your notes?
  • Do you have quotations, facts, or other content that can go into notes to lessen your cognitive burden?
  • Is today the day you will learn how to use Presenter Mode in your presentation software?

Please share this...

This is one of many public speaking articles featured on Six Minutes.
Subscribe to Six Minutes for free to receive future articles.