Notes About Notes

by Stephen Boyd | February 28, 2004

A problem for many speakers is using too many notes or not using them well. Audience members have a hard time paying attention when the speaker is looking down at his or her paper. Perfectly good speech content loses its impact when the speaker is bound to notes.

Here are some suggestions on how to use notes so that to the speaker they are an aid and not a crutch.

Do not write out your speech word for word! The only time this is acceptable is if you could be misquoted or you have a highly technical speech. If you write out your speech you tend to read it or memorize the words instead of the thought the words are communicating. Instead use key words—or trigger words--as your outline. The note should "trigger" your next thought.

I prefer note cards. Leave lots of space between lines and make your script legible. If you stumble over words or phrases and the note does not trigger the next thought, you should rework your outline. Train yourself to look down at notes as you are finishing one thought and moving on to the next one. This helps you to break at the ends of thoughts or sentences instead of in the middle of an idea. Sheets of paper are flimsy and hard to manage. If you do use sheets of paper, a way for them to be more manageable is to put them in a sheet protector with a dark construction paper backing. These are available in most office supply stores.

Practice with the notes you will use in your speech. When you do this you will become familiar with the notes on the cards and recognize easily where you are when you glance down.

It is appropriate to use your notes as part of your delivery—especially when you know you will need them more frequently for a particular part of your speech. Gesture with them; don’t try to hide them or act like you do not have notes. The audience will notice either way, so plan to reveal rather than conceal them. You could color code your notes. Have one color for main points and another color for sub points—and still another color for quotations and statistics.

When you use these techniques, audience members will not even think about your notes because they will be such a natural part of your delivery.

About the Author

Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. He presents keynotes and seminars to corporations and associations whose people want to speak and listen effectively. See additional articles and resources at To book Steve, call 800-727-6520 or email him through his website.

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