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Speaking Notes or No Notes

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A group of colleagues sitting in a business meeting

“What do you think about having notes?”

We get this question a lot.

Can I have notes?
Where do I put them?
What’s on them?
Are there do’s and don’ts?

First, if you want notes because you don’t know your content, you’re out of luck. That’s a lose-lose situation. You’re uncomfortable and your audience is irritated (their number one complaints of presenters are reading notes or screens verbatim). But if you do your prep work and still have a hard time not clinging to notes, here are some tips:

1. Skip note cards

I know we got used to writing out our presentations or speeches on note cards back in  our schooling years. But unfortunately, and fortunately, those days are over.

Note cards don’t work for two simple reasons: your text will be too small to glance at quickly (key word quickly) and you have to hold them in your hands. If you get nervous they’ll shake and your hands are just too unpredictable to trust they won’t do something distracting with an object like note cards throughout your presentation. Print them out on standard paper.

2. Put them to the side

Your notes should be placed where you can easily read or see them within a glance but not sitting on a podium in front of you. Podiums or speaking stands are bulky and keep you distant (literally) from your audience. Find a thin stand or pull over a small table to your left or right. Don’t hold your notes!

3. Make it an outline

Ditch your script. I know – some of you want to get the words just right. But when you script it word-for-word you put way too much pressure on yourself. It’s extremely difficult to be present, authentic and engaging as a presenter when you’re concerned about staying to the script and your nose is buried in your notes. Instead, make an outline. Note the main points, supportive points, story cues, transitions, but keep it simple.

4. Make them bigger.

Now that you haven’t scripted your talk, and they’re not below your nose or in your hands, you’ll need to make the font slightly larger. Now you can glance over, spot where you are, see what’s next, and truck along without those long awkward ‘oh no the speaker looks like they lost their spot’ moments. Increase that font!

5. Trust what you know.

Ultimately, if you’ve prepared and own your content, you need to trust what you know. Lengthy notes, verbatim scripts, and strategically-placed teleprompters can make us doubt ourselves. They’re temptations to bury our heads in our content.


If you are feeling anxious at the thought of ditching your notes, here’s a key to transitioning:

Next time you’re running through your slide deck, ditch the notes and use your PowerPoint deck as quick visual cues and see how much you can actually remember. If you need notes the first few tries, that’s fine but rehearse a few more times.

Once you realize you really do know your stuff, once you trust yourself, your notes will become nice-to-haves and not must-haves.