How to Use Notes in a Speech: 14 valuable tips for a speaker
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How to Use Notes in a Speech: 14 valuable tips for a speaker

While we’ve already explored the topic of speaking without notes here on my site, I’ve figured I should add a piece about speaking with notes. After all, there is nothing wrong with using notes in a speech, and it is the preferred method of many speakers. I know that there are a lot of times when I choose to use notes during a speech.

So, how do you use notes in a speech? Realize that notes are just notes, and shouldn’t be the full manuscript of your speech. Cue cards can be very effective when speaking in public. Make sure you are writing down keywords and phrases to remember. Try not to look down at your cards too much.

There are many benefits and also tricks to using notes during your speech. It’s okay if you aren’t experienced with this skill yet, because everyone has to start somewhere. If you’re really serious about learning to properly utilize this in your presentations, then I am going to show you some of my best tips. Read on!

Meanwhile, if you want to be a better public speaker, I have compiled a great list of the best public speaking books you definitely should read. Check out these books here

How to Use Notes in a Speech

When you are using notes, remember that how you use them is more important than anything. Almost everyone does notes differently, so it can help you to ask for advice from a trusted friend or mentor.  And you should always remember to let things flow and be natural. If you are awkward and acting less than natural onstage, your audience could feel uncomfortable.

And above all, if you are in the middle of your speech and something is not going as you planned in your notes? That is perfectly okay. Not everything can be planned for, and sometimes you just have to go with the flow.

#1 Identify if You Need Notes or Not

There may be times when it is more or less appropriate to use notes, or not. For the most part, it is your choice. However, there are some other factors you should consider:

Maybe it is required to use notes

Some places where you speak may explicitly require you not to use notes. This also includes certain formats such as TED talks or short toasts. Make sure to find out whether or not using notes or not using notes is preferable at your venue, and for your style of speech.

It is not allowed to use notes

If you are explicitly not allowed to use notes. This may be the case if you are giving a presentation at school, or a speech as part of a verbal essay.

How long is your speech?

Is your speech too short to warrant the need for notes? Most of the time, speakers don’t use notes if their presentation is less than six minutes or so.

Delivering a keynote speech at a major event, teaching an educational course that is multiple days long, or giving a speech that is too long to memorize are good times that it is appropriate for you to use notes.

When you assess whether or not you should use notes, you avoid a lot of confusion when you show up to give your speech. You also avoid a potentially awkward situation. This goes right along with something that I am always telling my colleagues and students: be prepared!

If you are somehow here because you need to know how to give a speech without notes, check out the article that I have done here about that subject. For the rest of this article, we will exclusively be talking about public speaking with the use of notes. It’s important to say, though, that there is nothing inherently wrong with either method.

Creating and Planning Your Speech is a Great Start

Now, let’s talk about creating and planning your speech with the use of cue cards. If you know anything about me, you know I’m a bit fan of planning your presentation out as much as you can. After all, planning and practice both make perfect!

Here are some steps you should take to plan your speech out with notes using cue cards:

Recommended books

#2 What is the purpose of your speech?

Knowing the purpose of your speech is always the first step. What is the reason you are speaking? What cause are you trying to further? Get out a piece of paper, and write the purpose of your speech at the very top in big letters.

This is something you need to keep in mind throughout the entire process so that you don’t lose sight.

#3 Draft and outline

Write a draft with an outline prepared. Make sure to underline or highlight key points of your speech.

#4 Tweak your draft

Go through your draft as many times as possible to add or subtract anything that you need to. Take this time to fix any mistakes you may have made.

#5 Let someone else take a look

Have a friend or mentor look over your draft for you, since they may be able to give you some proofreading tips. If you know someone who is good at writing or is an English major, they may be best able to help you.

#6 Prepare your cards

Then, take your cue cards and write down the key ideas of your outline onto the cards.

Try to select one main idea per card. If you cram too many ideas onto one card, this may end up getting confusing. It could even cause you to lose your place. Also, make sure you are writing legibly at all times.

#7 Prepare for the time limit

If your speech has a time limit, write on each card how much time you should spend on each particular idea.

#8 Number your cards

Number your cards if applicable so you know what order you are going in.

#9 Write Interaction Reminders or Important Facts

As I mentioned before, notes are a better choice than using a scripted speech if you want to maximize the connection with your audience members. That is why it is a good idea to include reminders to interact with your audience on your note cards.

Here are some interaction reminders you could write for yourself:

  • “Ask Poll Question”
  • “Change Slide”
  • “Flip Chart”
  • “Give Five Minute Break”
  • “Distribute Handout”

And if you have any exact information that you need to remember, such as percentages or names, you should write this down to remember.

When I give this piece of advice, many students have told me that they are worried that writing down interaction reminders with make them look too unnatural or scripted. But interacting with your audience is just as important as what you have to tell them.

With practice, your audience interaction won’t look unnatural even if you have to remind yourself when to do it.

#10 Are You Using PowerPoint Slides?

PowerPoint slides can be very helpful for a lot of things. And while they can be a great visual aid for your audience, you should not use them as a substitution for regular notes.

Why? Well, this will be too much material for your slides. And the PowerPoint is supposed to be used as a visual aid, not as the sole source of information. After all, what do you need to speak for if all of your information is available on your slides?

#11 Practice, practice, practice

When you are completely done writing out your notes, practice reading them during your rehearsal. This will help you identify any possible problems before the day of your presentation.

When you effectively plan out your speech and your note cards, you will be best prepared when the big day comes. And being prepared for your speech is one of the best things you can do.

Notes Aren’t a Manuscript for the Entire Speech

There are times when reading from a full script is appropriate, or required. But in general, notes are considered a better overall way to speak to an audience. Why? Well, that is because notes give you more of an opportunity to be yourself onstage.

Don’t allow your use of notes to reduce how you are able to connect with your audience. What if you are reading from a full script, and someone asks a question that interrupts that script? This is exactly why your notes should only represent a general outline and reminders, not an entire script.

#12 Use bullet points instead of a full script

Here are a few other reasons you should use notes or bullet points instead of a full script:

  • Full scripts require you to constantly be looking at a piece of paper, but this looks unnatural. You should be giving some attention to looking at your audience, and focusing on your hand gestures.
  • Writing out only specific key phrases can help you remember what you want to talk about, while also giving you some freedom to improvise when needed.
  • Not having to look at a full script will give you the freedom to move around the stage.
  • You have a guide with notes, but you are not fully committed to the full word-for-word script, which gives you flexibility.

While reading from a full script shouldn’t be completely thought of as bad, I often find that it is easier to talk more freely and connect with the audience better when I am not chained to a script. But the security of having notes or a set of bullet points on hand can help greatly when the time comes. 

#13 Cue Cards Help Tremendously

Should you use regular paper, or note card stock?

A regular paper can be great for the planning stages, but you will definitely benefit in the long run from having your notes on smaller cue cards. Cue cards also look more graceful when you are handling them onstage.

Plus, what if you get nervous and your hands start to shake? A larger piece of paper will make the shaking more noticeable to your audience.

Heavy card stock is a good choice. This way, your notes are less likely to blow away if there is a fan, air conditioning, or it is windy and you are outside. However, you should also be prepared to bring a paperweight with you, just in case. You don’t want to end up chasing your notes around instead of giving your speech!

If you are used to giving speeches with a full script, and now you’re looking to switch to note cards, try to give yourself a smooth transition. It might take a little while to get used to doing things differently. This is why rehearsal, asking for help from a mentor and revising your notes many times before the actual speech is good ways to prepare.

#14 Don’t Constantly Look Down at the Notes

Giving eye contact to your audience members is a good way to connect with them during a speech. But constantly looking down at your note cards can have the opposite effect, and make you look more distant.

Throughout your speech, make sure you are putting forth an effort to look out into the audience, make eye contact, and smile. You should also make gestures with your hands, when appropriate. (If you need more tips on what to do with your hands, check this out).

However, you shouldn’t constantly apologize when you glance down at your notes. Your audience members are forgiving, and they know that sometimes, speakers need to make good use of note cards. Remember, they won’t care that you are using notes, so don’t be self-conscious!

You should not be trying to hide your cards from the audience. If you’re making it look like you have something to hide, you are making yourself look suspicious. Try to treat your note cards like a natural extension of your own hand.

Try recording yourself doing a practice run of your speech. If you notice yourself looking down at the note cards too much, then try making an effort to look out into the audience a bit more.

Is it Professional to Use Notes in My Speech?

After we’ve made it this far, maybe you are still wondering whether or not it is professional for you to use notes when giving a speech. Believe it or not, but I get asked this question all the time from students, friends, and other speakers. It makes me baffled to think that people still believe that using note cards in a speech could be unprofessional.

Listen to me when I say that there is nothing unprofessional about using notes in your speech. In fact, until the rise of the note-less TED talk format, it used to be common for most speakers to use notes during their presentations.

When I speak to students, it seems that they are mostly afraid that using notes indicates a lack of self-confidence. Or worse, they are afraid that they appear uneducated or unprepared. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

What if you were in the middle of your presentation, and you forgot to talk about a key part? It was very important and forgetting it threw you off track for the rest of the speech.

In the end, your audience was confused about the purpose of your speech, and you came off looking very unprepared. Some people just give better speeches if they have notes. And if that describes you, then you absolutely should have notes.

After all, why put yourself at risk of forgetting something important? If you are worried about the opinions of someone else, don’t be. After all, they are not the ones giving your speech for you, and you have to do what will help you give your best speech.

To many, using notes indicates that you took the time to thoroughly prepare. And if you are new to a topic or inexperienced in the subject material, notes can be a lifesaver for you. So use notes without a worry, because it is absolutely not unprofessional.

Conclusion: How to Use Notes in a Speech?

Today, I hope you have learned something valuable about speaking with notes. Giving a speech with proper notes can be a great way to be prepared for an excellent presentation. As long as you are fully prepared, you have absolutely nothing to worry about. And if you have anything else to share about using notes during a speech, make sure to leave it in the comments section!

Are you looking for good tips to end a speech on a powerful note? Check out my article here, for several tips to properly end a speech. There are also many more articles on how to give a good speech on this website.

Related Questions

Is it okay for me to read a speech? It is usually better for you to read notes instead of an entire speech. If you have to read a full manuscript, that is also okay. Make sure you do what feels comfortable. Leave room to be able to connect with your audience.

How do I prepare for a speech? Make sure you know the purpose of your speech from the beginning. Take time to plan and create your notes if you are using them. Practice and rehearse as much as you possibly can. Rehearse in front of a friend or family member who can give you feedback.

How do I use your my effectively in a presentation? Watch your volume, and be mindful of your intonation. Speak clearly at all times when you are giving a speech. Place emphasis on the right words. Make sure you pace yourself accordingly. Pause when appropriate. (full article here)

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Who is Janek Tuttar?

My name is Janek Tuttar, and I am the founder and author of Speak and Conquer website.

I have been teaching public speaking at Estonian Entrepreneurship University of Applied Sciences

Here, I am sharing the wisdom of how to cope in different public speaking situations.

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Janek Tuttar

Hi! My name is Janek Tuttar, and I am the founder and author of SpeakAndConquer.com.

I have been teaching and blogging about public speaking since spring 2007. Here, I am sharing the wisdom of how to cope in different public speaking situations.

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