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Dave Hill – Speaker, Trainer, Author, and Speech Coach

Imagine you are delivering a technical presentation to over 300 peers at a conference. Your boss was the one who convinced you to develop and deliver the presentation. You are not accustomed to public speaking, and it scares you to death. As you stand at the lectern holding onto it for dear life, nervousness prevents you from making eye contact with anyone in the audience. You deliver your presentation while simultaneously staring intensely at your PowerPoint slides. Your back is facing the audience most of the time. In your hand are your notes which could have helped guide your thoughts, but they are shaking to the extent that you cannot read the 12 point font size.

The visibly shaking notes give the audience a clear indication of your nervousness, and they become more focused on your slow death rather than the content of your speech. You stumble through your presentation in a monotonous voice, forgetting most of the important points. It’s a disaster- it has been one of the most humiliating times of your life.

I would love to be able to tell you that this is a hypothetical story; however, it isn’t. The presentation was being delivered by an acquaintance, a highly skilled engineer who knew his subject inside out but wasn’t able to maintain his composure, keep his thoughts, and most importantly, he was not able to read his notes effectively. I never saw him present again.

This article focuses on some success strategies for using notes. The goal should be to minimize the use of notes, as they can distract and diminish the level of eye contact and engagement with the audience. When you are using notes at a lectern, you are anchoring yourself and preventing the use of purposeful movement that could enhance your presentation. It can be very distracting when a speaker engages the audience with a story, and then has to walk back to the lectern solely for the purpose of reading notes. Reading word for word from notes, or reading information directly from your PowerPoint slides with your back turned to the audience are extremely detrimental to the effectiveness of your presentation.

Some reasons for using notes can be:
□ Not enough time to prepare and memorize the information
□ The information is highly technical and difficult to remember
□ You have quotes or numbers that you want to deliver accurately
□ Your presentation is lengthy or does not have a strong “flow” to it, and it is difficult to remember
□ You have trouble remembering information under stressful conditions

Using sheets of paper for notes:
□ Use stiff paper – it is easier to handle and shaky hands will be less obvious. Number the sheets in case you drop them and need to assemble them in a hurry.
□ Use large font size so that your eyes can pick up the gist of a sentence with just a quick glance. If possible, just include key bullet points that will guide you through your presentation.
□ If using a lectern or other similar object to rest your notes, discreetly slide a sheet to the side after each page is finished.
□ To keep the notes less obvious, do not staple them together or print double-sided (so that you do not have to visibly manipulate them).
□ Your introduction should also be on stiff paper in a large font size, as the person introducing you may be nervous or have difficulty reading the sentences.

Using note cards:
□ Occasionally I carry a note-card in my pocket which contains a few bullet points to help me get back on track should lose my way in a presentation.
□ Note cards should also be on stiff paper with a font size that is easy to read.
□ Keep the information on the cards to brief sentences or bullet points.
□ I recently heard someone talk about using card paper that is color coordinated with the clothes they are wearing so that the notes are not as visible or intrusive.
□ Cards should be numbered and can easily be slid from top to bottom when each one is finished.

Using handouts for notes:
□ Some presenters and trainers use handouts with “fill in the blanks”. Key words are left out of a sentence, and there is a space for audience members to fill them in when prompted by the presenter. These handouts serve two purposes; they help a presenter stay on track (the handout is used as a step-by-step guide) and it is also beneficial because the audience will have better information retention by filling in the missing information.

Using a flipchart for notes:
□ Another covert method of using notes is when you are going to incorporate the use of a flipchart. The pre-determined information that you are going to write on the flip-chart as part of your presentation can be written in light pencil ahead of time. These hidden cues can help you keep your information on track.

□ Aim to have no notes or cards. This will allow you to maximize your engagement with the audience.
□ If you must use notes, keep the amount of material you read to a minimum.
□ Keep as much eye contact with the audience as possible.
□ Use stiff paper with large font size.
□ Manipulate the notes as discreetly as possible, side-to-side on a lectern, and top to bottom when using small note cards in your hand.
□ Notes can be used clandestinely on a flip chart or in a handout with a “fill in the blank” format.

Final Note
Several years ago, my brother was getting the New York City underground train to another part of the city where he was going to deliver an important speech. As he waited for his train, he took the time to read his speech outline that was written on note cards. He had the note cards to help him memorize his material. The train appeared from the tunnel. It stopped, and a crowd of people started getting off. Suddenly, someone hurrying and exiting the train pushed past him while grabbing one of his note cards. The stranger disappeared into the distant mass of people. My brother got on the train with his mouth wide open in astonishment, and one note card missing. While analyzing what had just happened, he came to the conclusion that the person who had grabbed the note card without stopping had thought that my brother was handing out discount coupons!