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Presentations skills: using notes

Ask the Experts

Q. I just can't seem to break free from depending on my notes. I was told that using notes makes me seem unsure of my material. Should I use notes or should I memorize my presentation?

A. It's okay to use notes. It's a question of how you use them.

There are exceptions, but for the most part you should not read notes word-for-word, as if reading from a script. That's almost certain to give the impression that you're unsure of your material — or raise doubts about your expert status.

What's more, using notes as a script reduces your chances of connecting with your audience, for several reasons. Reading makes it more difficult to maintain proper eye focus with your listeners. It takes your eye focus away from the audience, where it should be, and shifts it to the script, where it should not be. It also causes you to lose normal voice inflection. Both of these — proper eye focus and voice inflection — are among the keys to an effective presentation.

"using notes as a script reduces your chances of connecting with your audience"

Instead, think of your notes as a form of visual aid — for you, not your audience. Your notes should represent an outline of your key points, preferably in bullet form.

Are there times when you should read word-for-word from your notes or from a script?

The answer is yes. There will be times when that's perfectly acceptable and even necessary. In some instances, you may have no choice in the matter, such as when you're presenting complex material having legal or regulatory implications. It's acceptable also to read from notes in other instances, for example, when you're drawing upon quotations or statistics that must be used accurately and precisely, or reading a policy statement or a company announcement that must be delivered as written.

Choose whatever style of outline prompts you best.
You may prefer to use key words only, or key sentences, or even graphics — or some combination of those.

You may prefer an outline that orders your thoughts sequentially, or one that breaks out your ideas according to content topic. Other outlines help you with choices you may have to make, especially during a complex presentation.

There are the "old-school" techniques that still work for many speakers. Some, for example, prefer full-size sheets of paper with at least 14-point font; for many, 18- or 20-point font works even better. Others may prefer notes in pencil, lightly drawn on a flipchart.

Whatever you use, make sure you lay out your notes for easy reading. Use large enough letters that let you read easily from a distance without having to examine your notes up close, as if under a microscope.

There are also the technology-based mechanisms that have been growing in use. It began with the now low-tech teleprompter and moved on to encompass such things as laptop screens, color printouts, and PDA devices that can zoom to large-size font, among other tools. The choice is yours, based both on personal preference and the particular setting for your presentation such as a large meeting hall or small room.

When you're using notes, don't try to make a secret of it.
Pause calmly to read your notes. Allow yourself a moment to absorb what's there. Then turn from your notes, look at your audience, and speak. Don't worry about pausing to read. These pauses invariably seem to you, the speaker, to last longer than they do to the audience. Besides, these pauses have another benefit: they allow your listeners a moment to absorb what you've just said.

Should you memorize?
Your question also asked if you should memorize your presentation as a way of not using notes. The answer to that is an emphatic NO!

Memorizing a presentation is simply not an option for the vast majority. For most people, it's a sure recipe for disaster. For one thing, it's just about impossible to remember everything, which all but guarantees that you'll come up blank at some point. That will leave you standing there, without a lifeline. What's more, even if you can memorize an entire presentation — and that's a big if — your delivery is likely to come off as stilted. It will be lacking in conviction and emotion, two other important ingredients of a successful presentation.

Instead, you should work to internalize your presentation, focusing on the ideas behind the words. As part of your preparation, become completely familiar with every part of your presentation. Practice aloud, until you're comfortable delivering your presentation without the use of notes. Rehearse as many times as you need to. That will clearly reduce your need for notes in the first place.

This question was answered by Frank Carillo, President, Executive Communications Group. Our consultants are ready to answer any questions you may have about presenting in real-life situations. We respond to all questions. Use our Tell Us form to submit your question. Your question could be featured in our next Ask the Experts column.

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