People often ask me what kinds of speaker notes are best for public speaking and presentation, and my first response is that it really depends on the individual and on the situation, but you’d be amazed at how often I see presenters attempting to use speaker notes that actually hinder their performance rather than enhancing it.
My first suggestion for creating effective speaker notes is to remember that generally less is more. The more material you have in front of you, the greater your temptation to keep your eye on the material because you don’t want to skip anything, but then your audience connection suffers because there’s less eye contact, and your personal connection suffers because you’re working from the page rather than working from your center.
So how do you know just how much material you need in front of you to give your speech or presentation effectively? I recommend a method of expansion and contraction. Start with a very bare bones outline, perhaps just the three things you want your listeners to remember when you’ve finished your talk, and then begin to expand it from there as you add supporting detail so that when you’re finished you have a rather extensive and detailed outline. Then as you rehearse and begin to internalize your material, you can start reducing the outline to the point where, when you approach the podium, you have just the right amount of material you need to get you through the performance, no more, and obviously no less.
My second suggestion for creating effective speaker notes is to use at-a-glance formatting. You want your notes to maximize the amount of time you can spend with your attention on your listeners and minimize the amount of time you need to spend with attention down on the podium. That probably means using a larger font size, 14-point or maybe even larger. Many speakers I observe are using 12-point font, sometimes even less, and in my opinion that’s too small, so 14-point font. You want that text to just leap off the page at you.
At-a-glance formatting would also include creating a lot more white space on your page. If you’re trying to speak from text that looks like this, it’s going to be difficult for you because the text is so densely arranged on the page. It becomes very easy to lose your place, so your tendency will be to keep your eyes on your notes because you don’t want to lose your place.
Years ago I had a client who formatted his notes in a way that I thought was brilliant. He placed three to four lines of text at the top of the page, three to four lines of text at the middle of the page, and three to four lines of text at the bottom of the page. He was never in danger of losing his place. Whenever he looked down, he already knew he was either going to be at the top of the page, the middle of the page, or the bottom of the page, and so as a result, he went into that performance feeling a lot more confident and a lot more secure. So I recommended this little trick to many of my clients since then.
My third suggestion for creating effective speaker notes is that you need to know yourself. For example, you need to know whether you’re able to memorize things easily and whether you are able to recall that information when you’re under pressure, and when you have to perform. Obviously someone who does memorize easily, someone who is confident in their powers of recall even when they’re under pressure, that person is going to need fewer notes than the person who doesn’t memorize things so easily, or who is afraid or knows they will tend to forget things when they’re under pressure. It helps to be aware of your skill with spontaneous speech. The person who is able to stand up and on the spot articulate clear and concise and meaningful messages will not need to have as many speaker notes as the person who doesn’t perform so well when they are just speaking on their feet.
My fourth suggestion for creating effective speaker notes is to learn to consider your circumstances. What works for you in one situation might not always work well for you in all situations. Learn to consider the amount of time that you have for preparation given the same amount of material. My opinion is that when you have less time for preparation, you’re going to need more notes and more extensive notes. When you have plenty of time for preparation and rehearsal, then you’re probably going to need fewer notes for your performance.
Learn to take into consideration the detail and complexity of your content. If my content is complex and detailed, then I am probably going to need more extensive notes for my presentation, but if my content is rather simple, general, broad points, then I’ll probably need fewer notes.
You have to know what works for you as an individual, but you also have to know that that’s probably going to change from one situation to the next. I have given talks that were 30 minutes long using a single index card with a few bullet points on it, and I have given other presentations that were 30 minutes long using 12 pages of notes. Yes, you have to know yourself, but you also have to work with the circumstances that are in front of you.
In summary, as you go about creating speaker notes that will actually help you speak well, perform well, keep these four things in mind. First of all, in general, less is more. You don’t want to have too much material on the podium in front of you. Second, use at-a-glance formatting, so larger fonts and lots of white space on the page. Third, you need to know yourself, know your abilities for memorization and for recall, know your abilities for formulating clear thoughts on the spot. And finally, work with your circumstances. What works for you in one situation might not work in all situations. That might include things like the time you have to prepare and also the detail and complexity of your material.
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