How to Use Notes Effectively

USING NOTES (Delivered for an education session at Maidenhead Speakers Club on 24 Jan 2011)

I want to say something about using notes. Not bank notes, notes for speeches. I will cover a few general points first, then deal in turn with the material on which I write my notes, creating notes and finally using notes. These ideas are not things you MUST do – just ideas that work for me and may perhaps work for you too.

Firstly, the best notes are NO NOTES! If you can, don’t use notes at all, that allows maximum eye-contact. But, it’s easier to forget than remember so notes serve as an insurance against a mental blackout. There’s a saying: ‘The palest ink is greater than the strongest memory’. Brief notes help keep your speech moving, on time and in sequence. I’m not advocating a word-for-word written speech, just brief notes.

What about the material for your notes? I prefer to use cards. Unlike paper, cards stay flat, are easy to handle, don’t wrinkle or tear like paper, are heavy enough not to blow around, and can easily fit into a pocket or handbag. Useful card sizes are 13 x 9 cm (5” x 3½”) nominally, or 20 x 13 cm (8” x 5”). For example, Prince Charles puts his hand into his jacket pocket and pulls out his notes on cards.

I find folding up the right hand top and bottom corners on alternate cards simplifies sliding the cards across a lectern; I’ve got something to get hold of whilst I’m speaking, ensuring minimum fuss. I’m sure you will have seen a speaker turning over an A4 sized sheet of notes – it can be very distracting.

Now about creating your notes. At some functions there may be no lectern, just a low table and with poor lighting, so visibility of notes is essential! It’s a good idea to either handwrite your notes or produce them on a PC with, say, 30 point characters, using a mix of capital letters and lower case. Ideally, one idea per card, with only three or four words per line, and a one-line space between lines, on one side of the card only. I find it a good idea to use a coloured card for the concluding notes, then if time gets short I can easily find my final card and summarise. It is essential each card is numbered – if you drop them they can quickly be got back in sequence. It’s also possible to use a treasury tag through a hole in the corner of each card but then they have to be pivoted round on a lectern.

Leave your notes on the lectern – if you have one – it frees the hands for gesturing and eliminates the unconscious waving of notes. Just slide the top card across the lectern using the turned-up corner. Try to avoid talking and reading your notes at the same time – look briefly at the notes, think, and speak. Let your eyes look down at the notes then quickly go back to looking at the audience.

Finally, the more you read the less the eye contact. Look at your audience, look quickly down at your notes and let your eyes bounce back to the audience. Familiarise, not memorise. Sticking notes on something you look at regularly – a shaving mirror, a fridge door – helps remind you.

In summary: try to manage without notes; familiarise, not memorise; use clear, bold characters, 3 to 4 words per line. Notes are no substitute for preparation and rehearsal. Remember, maximise eye contact; more notes means less eye contact. Norman Rhodes, DTM / 22 Oct 1991

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