Should you reference note cards when you do a presentation? What about using your smartphone or tablet? And if you are presenting online, are you tempted to read a script on your computer screen or notes on PowerPoint’s presenter view?
These are frequently asked questions that require context to answer. It depends on a variety of factors: Is the talk informal and interactive or formal and structured? How large is the audience? Is the venue a board room, lecture hall, or conference ballroom? Another factor is your level of confidence and ability as a speaker.
The end goal here is to connect with your audience authentically and deliver information of value to them. For the average speaker, relying on a typed speech, speaker notes, or hand-held cards could set you up for failure. Why? Because when you dwell too much on written words, you are not paying attention to the people in the physical or virtual room. If you should lose your place in the script, your discomfort will show in your voice and body language.
Here are eight practical guidelines for working with written notes.
1. Pick the right-sized cards.
Use index cards 4”x6” or slightly larger. I make my own 5.5”x8.5” cards from craft cardstock cut in half. These fit comfortably in a purse or jacket pocket. Write on one side only. Use a broad-tipped black marker to write legibly in block letters that you can read in low light and without reading glasses. Number each card.
2. Write only what is essential.
Short bullets can serve as the outline of your talk. Write down keywords to jog your memory and keep you from going astray. Are there numbers, statistics, and complex names that are necessary for your content to resonate? Write those down. Do not telegraph that you are using note cards. Glance gently at them and return your eyes to the audience right away. Hold your cards in your non-dominant hand. That way, when you speak and gesture, you are not fanning yourself with the cards and calling attention to them.
3. Refrain from using your smartphone for notes.
Unless you have truly practiced shifting your gaze from the phone screen back to the audience, do not use your smartphone as a combination note card and teleprompter. You may end up looking down at the device more often than up at the audience, and you will lose the all-important connection. However, saving talking points in your phone may be an efficient way to ensure you stay on message in impromptu situations.
4. Memorize the first 10 seconds of your talk.
The first 10 to 20 seconds of a live talk will determine if your audience members come along with you or start checking their emails. The window to grab attention is even smaller online, about seven seconds. Memorization requires practice and more practice to sound natural. Hook your audience with a good opener combined with eye contact, and pave the way for the gifts that you will share with them.
5. Print a copy of your presentation, just in case.
You may think it is a waste of paper, but having a printed copy of your talk will save you in case of a brain freeze or a technical meltdown. That does not mean you will be glued to the script, but having it handy will give you peace of mind. Printed handouts of your PowerPoint, three to six on a page, will guide you through your content in the event of an audio-visual failure. I print a six-up handout of a presentation with 20 slides or larger and arrange them in a three-ring binder which becomes my “sheet music” when I speak. This allows me to maintain my gaze on the audience whether I am in person or online.
6. Resist the temptation to read verbatim.
How often have you seen a video conference where the moderator and panelists are reading from a script? The words could be on a document on their screens, PowerPoint notes, or on a piece of paper taped behind the webcam. Their delivery is robotic. Their eyes shift from side to side. Their faces lack expression. Resist doing the same when you are working from home or at a remote location. People will know. The alternative is to use brief written notes, look down quickly and return your eyes to the webcam where your audience “resides.”
7. Word of caution about virtual teleprompters.
There are free and paid virtual teleprompter apps that are voice activated and scroll your script as you speak. I do not recommend you use one unless you research all the features and settings and dedicate time to practice. If you experience a glitch–like the text unexpectedly jumping to the end of the script—you will be in trouble. This has happened to me a few times on Zoom, and returning the cursor to the right point is clumsy and disrupts the flow.
8. Know when to turn the page.
If you are doing a more formal presentation at a lectern, rehearse so that you are referencing your papers as little as possible. Avoid turning pages in the middle of a sentence, an important idea, a quote, or a story. Look for natural breaks between main points to advance to the next page.
Written notes are like a security blanket for many speakers. To use them or not depends on your level of comfort with your material, your audience, and the venue. Practice speaking in public often so that you become skilled at making it through with little to no use of your notes. But have them at the ready just in case you are thrown off track.