Jun 05

Using notes effectively


Have you seen a presentation where the speaker reads their notes? Or uses a power point with lots of text and reads the slides? Have you seen a speech where the speaker has troubles connecting with the audience because they are so immersed in their notes? These are no-no’s when it comes to using notes!

As many of you know, both Alli and myself are members of Toastmasters International. We frequently see questions relating to using notes in the evaluations, most typically: “Did the speaker use notes during their presentation?” It seems to be an easy aspect to nitpick. It also seems like Toastmasters encourages all their speakers to get to the point, early in their communication journey, to not use notes. I disagree. Furthermore, this emphasis on not using notes is doing a disservice to those in Toastmasters and beyond. The question should not be “did the speaker use notes” but instead “did the speaker use notes effectively?

Using notes effectively is a skill that needs to be developed, as any other aspect of communication. Notes can help with nervousness during a speech, providing cues to jump-start after forgetting your place. Notes can help build credibility by ensuring the stats/facts/etc. are properly quotes and cited. Notes can help ensure the speech is organized and timely. But using notes requires practice!

I recently gave a speech that included two quotes, one by Franklin D. Roosevelt and the other by John F. Kennedy. The quotes were integral to my message, but remembering the exact wording was taking all my practice time. I tried to memorize the quotes but realized that I was focusing on the wrong aspect of my speech development. I began to test different uses of notes to provide the biggest impact. After practicing a few different methods, my solution was having the quotes on a sheet of paper, which I kept on a table off to the side of my speaking area. When it was time to use the quote, I picked up the paper, paused while I read it to myself, then read the quote aloud, paused again, and finally returned it to where it was setting. This allowed me to use the correct wording without the forceful regurgitation.


Here are some tips for using notes:

  1. Think of notes as a road map – not every word but the important ones
  2. Use notes as an outline of your speech (include critical transitions)
  3. Include quotes/stats/facts/citations
  4. If your presentation includes a powerpoint, strategically place key words as indicators for what you want to address verbally
  5. Use your notes as built in pauses – take a moment to reflect on your notes, then begin speaking again (this also gives your audience a moment to dwell on your last comments/thoughts)
  6. Practice, practice, practice! The best way to learn what works for you in regards to notes is to practice!


We’d love to hear your suggestions, feedback, or your personal stories of effectively using notes! Add them to the comments.

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