Will using notes during a presentation make you look unprepared? Will their use make you look unsure, tentative, without confidence? Will referring to notes lessen your credibility?

No, no, and no—so long as you use them correctly.

WHY?

Some presenters incorporate notes into almost every presentation, considering their notes a form of insurance, something to fall back upon in case of a disturbance or sudden panic. Having a fallback is good, something we recommend for speakers when it comes to matters such as possible technological or equipment failures. A set of notes serves the same purpose.

Others prepare notes to help them stay on track, to prevent them from being distracted by superfluous thoughts or unfortunate flights of fancy. They may tend to overshare, an inclination that needs curbing in a presentation as well as in Q&A; every digression, no matter how interesting, leads an audience away from central messages. That's the wrong direction.

Still other speakers rely upon a set of notes to help them explain complex processes or data, to make sure they don't omit vital steps or considerations, to maintain the careful sequence they have designed. In such cases, omissions or confused orderings may muddle listeners' understanding beyond recovery; a speaker's notes can direct a smooth progression through a series of essential, interdependent elements.

WHAT?

Notecards. Sheets of paper. Speaker notes in PowerPoint.

  • No matter which form you choose for your notes, number each but also number the points each contains. You want to be able to monitor your place as you proceed.
  • Print legibly in black ink or use an easy-to-read font; make the content of each note large enough so you won't have to squint, bend, or bring the note close to your face when you refer to it.
  • Use only keywords or very short phrases in your notes—no complete sentences or layered comments. The notes serve to spark your memory, trigger the internalization you acquired through rehearsal, identify where you are in your presentation, and, in many cases, keep you calm without dissipating your energy. To meet those purposes, construct notes as prompts, not scripts.

HOW?

If you've decided to use notes, begin handling them during rehearsals. A long search for a particular note may distract your audience or interrupt your momentum, so make sure you've organized notes to follow and predict the flow of your presentation. Check their order and legibility. Confirm, too, that the selected keywords or phrases prompt the messages and support you intend to deliver.

During rehearsal and the presentation itself, don't try to make a secret of the notes. Instead, pause calmly to read them. 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 last longer to the speaker than they do to the audience. Besides, pauses have another benefit: they allow your listeners a moment to absorb what you've just said.

Use any tool at your command when it comes to presentations, including the use of notes. They can increase command, confidence, completeness; they can help you establish and maintain authority and credibility. They position you to display poise, a characteristic that listeners always recognize with appreciation.