How and why you should use notes in your presentation

Pop culture might suggest that referring to notes while speaking makes you look unprepared, but it’s better than spewing blather or getting off topic. Here’s how to consult them with style.


When Spike Lee picked up his Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for his film “BlacKkKlansman,” it didn’t take long for Donald Trump to express his anger at his speech.

The president lashed out on Twitter, at what he perceived to be a ‘racist hit’, but he also criticized the filmmaker for his use of notes during his speech:

In this instance at least, the president is wrong. There is nothing wrong with using notes when giving a presentation or speech.

Many people think that using notes makes them appear unsure of what they are talking about and not like a subject expert. However, giving a presentation is not a memory test. In fact, trying to memorize everything you want to get across, and the order in which you want to say it, can add to nerves that many speakers experience. Delivery is likely to be stilted and there is always the risk that you will forget something crucial.

While the best speakers may often appear natural, almost like they have come without notes, it is very rare that they don’t have backup. Going “off the cuff” or “winging it” can be dangerous at the best of times and is even more of a risky strategy if you are addressing what could be a difficult audience.

Using notes also gives the impression that you have spent time carefully preparing what you want to say.

How to use notes during a presentation

The key is to avoid falling into the trap of using them as a script which you read word for word. A script will ensure you struggle to create a connection with your audience and many of them will switch off and stop listening.

A good way to avoid this is to make sure you don’t write full sentences in your notes. Stick to writing down key phrases and headlines in a bullet point format as a memory aid.

Keep your notes easily scannable so you just need to glance at them to know what comes next. You don’t want to spend time trying to work out what your own handwriting says. Plenty of white space is helpful here so you can easily find your place.

If you are going to use notes, don’t try to hide them. Apologizing for them will suggest a lack of confidence. Be open about taking a moment to occasionally glance at your notes. These pauses will feel like they last much longer to you than they do the audience.

One risk with notes is that they can become a distraction for the audience if you carry them around the stage, gesture while holding them or fiddle with them in your hands. Put them on a lectern and table where you can retrieve them when needed.

PowerPoint notes

Presentation tools like PowerPoint offer a notes section which can be useful. The danger is that presenters end up creating more slides to accommodate their notes, and nothing turns off an audience quite like a slide heavy presentation.

There is also the risk that a speaker will resort to simply reading the text from the slides–another guaranteed way to disenchant an audience.  The more you rehearse and become familiar with the content of your presentation or speech the less likely you are to need to use your notes.

However, they can help make speeches better and at the very least offer a valuable backup.

Adam Fisher is the content editor for Media First, a media and communications training firm with over 30 years of experience. A version of this article originally appeared on the Media First blog.

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