Is Using Notes During Your Speech Good or Bad?

You’re bound to read mixed advice regarding whether or not it is good to use notes during your speech. Some advice will suggest that it can be valuable while others will advice against it.  So what should you do?  What will give you the most success when presenting to your audience?

I’m sure many of you can relate to my experience as I ventured into the dark and scary world of public speaking.  If you read my first post you would know how traumatic my first experience speaking in public was.  Read my post here if you haven’t already done so.

When I first commenced public speaking, I hand wrote all of my speeches in full.  I would then proceed to read my speeches to my audience word for word.  Doing this resulted in a number of outcomes.

  1. Reading my speech meant that I was constantly looking down and could not make eye contact with my audience.
  2. If I ever lost track of where I was at in my notes (which occurred in every speech) I would need to pause and/ or fumble until I found my place again.
  3. I struggled to add a variety of tones to my speaking.  Emphasising key points sounded forced when attempted.
  4. The act of reading quite simply made the experience more stressful than it needed to be.  Interestingly, writing the speech also added to the preparation time.

The key point here is that reading your speech (word for word) will not work.  Some of your presentations may be on a topic that is close to your heart or based on an experience that you remember well.  At these times, you can generally speak from memory after practicing telling the tale a few times and ensuring that you will remember to communicate your key message(s).

If, on the other hand, you need a structured presentation where you are communicating detailed/ complex information then you will need to have prompts or notes that will enable you to remember key points. This is not the same as writing your presentation out in full as we are about to discover.

I recently presented a eulogy for a close friend who passed away after suffering for many years with severe mental illness.  Naturally the mood at the funeral was quite sombre with many people solely focused on the impact mental illness had on my friends life.  When asked to speak at the funeral I decided that I wanted to impart some of the happy and fun experiences that I had with my friend.  I knew that I would be quite emotional when presenting so I made some notes on small pieces of card that I could use to jog my memory from time to time if I felt myself falter.  I was pleased to not need the notes however I felt comfort in having them with me.  I was also pleased to be able to make the attendees at the funeral laugh a few times at the stories mischief that my friend and I got up to over our many years of friendship.


If you feel that you need to use notes in your presentation, the next decision is what type of notes should you use. That depends on the kind of presentation, your own personal style, and to a lesser extent, the physical venue.  There are a number of books available which discuss how to use notes in your presentation.  One book that I recommend is In The SpotLight, Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking and Performing. As the name suggests, this book also discusses strategies to overcome your fear of public speaking however also has some fantastic tips when using notes in your speech. I have also taken some highly practical tips from the fantastic and highly effective book by Dale Carnegie –  The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Speaking.

If you are interested in other books that will aid you in developing confidence in your public speaking skills, take a look at this blog post.

So, what type of notes should you use?
Index Cards

3×5 or 4×6 cards work well as a way to remind yourself of the key messages of your presentation or important facts, statistics and quotes. Because you can’t write much on the small cards, they are most effectively used as a prompt to keep you on track and jog your memory. This format is appropriate in most situations, whether you’re presenting from a stage in a conference center or from the head of the boardroom table. [Hint: number the cards. In the unikely event that you drop them, you’ll be glad you did.]

A4 Sheets of Paper

This is not a format I recommend. This size is too large to be held comfortably in your hands. It also provides room for way too much content, thereby tempting you to read from it. The place where this format could work is when you have the sheets in a 3-ring binder and it sits on the table in front of you, where you can refer to it periodically.

Power Point Notes

Using the notes field on PowerPoint can be effective, but there is a major shortcoming. It often means that you have way too many slides; you’ve created slides to accommodate your notes, where you might otherwise not have used a slide.

Using the actual slides as your notes is something I strongly recommend against. Chances are it will encourage you to put excessive text on each slide. As well, it will create a temptation to read off the slides, possibly even turning to the screen behind you, instead of focusing your attention on the audience.

So, if using Power Point notes, ensure that you keep the information to a minimum on the slides.  Only use short statements that are sufficient to prompt your memory to prevent your audience from focusing too much on your slides and to prevent the temptation to read from your slides.

How to Use Your Notes

Once you decide which note format is most comfortable for you, you now have to learn to use it so that it supports your presentation rather than detracts from it. When using notes you should:

  • Never write in full sentences. Simply jot down key phrases or headlines in bullet form. The point of the notes is to jog your memory. They shouldn’t be so complete that someone else could pick them up and get the meat of your presentation.
  • Make sure your notes are easy to read, which means writing large enough and leaving lots of white space.
  • Learn how to interact with the physical cards, slides or paper. Don’t shuffle the cards, don’t switch them from hand to hand, don’t gesture with them, don’t keep putting them in and pulling them out of a pocket. Don’t let cards or paper or computer screen obscure your face.
  • Remember it’s OK to look at your notes, that’s what you have them for and the audience will be perfectly fine with it. But do so in a deliberate manner; don’t glance surreptitiously at them as if you’re trying to make it seem that you’re not consulting them. Break eye contact with the audience, glance at your notes and absorb the next point, then re-establish eye contact with the audience and deliver that section. The pause may seem particularly long to you, but it doesn’t to the audience. And it will give them an opportunity to process what you’ve just said.
  • Practice, practice, practice until you can use your notes smoothly and seamlessly.
    If you follow the advice above and remember to keep your focus on the audience, notes will become another excellent tool in your presentation tool kit.

In summary, notes can be a vital aid to your presentation tool kit.  While you won’t always need to use them, you shouldn’t be afraid of having them on hand when required.

If you’re looking for other tips to improve your public speaking, why not read my 10 Public Speaking Tips That Will Actually Help You?

If you’re after a short online course in public speaking, I cannot recommend ed2go’s online public speaking courses enough.  I’ll be posting  review of their online courses in public speaking very soon.



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