Presentation training: Why it’s ok to use notes during a presentation – despite what Trump says

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Why it’s ok to use notes during a presentation – despite Trump's tweet

When Spike Lee picked up his Oscar for best adapted screenplay for his film BlacKkKlansman, it didn’t take long for Donald Trump to express his anger at his speech.

The President lashed out on Twitter, at what he perceived to be a ‘racist hit’, but he also criticised the filmmaker for his use of notes during his speech.

He said: “Be nice if Spike Lee could read his notes, or better yet not have to use notes at all”.



And for the purposes of this presentation skills blog, we are going to concentrate on his dig at the use of notes.

Arguably not for the first time, the President is wrong – there is nothing wrong with using notes when giving a presentation or speech.

This is something we are often asked about during our presentation skills courses. People have a tendency to think that using notes makes them appear unsure of what they are talking about and not like the subject expert they hope to be seen as.

However, giving a presentation is not a memory test and no-one really expects you to have learnt your content off by heart.

In fact, trying to memorise everything you want to get across, and the order in which you want to say it, can add to the feelings of pressure and nerves that many speakers experience. Delivery is likely to be stilted and there is always the risk that you will forget something crucial.

While the best speakers may often appear natural, almost like they have come without notes, it is very rarely the case.

Going ‘off the cuff’  or ‘winging it’ can be dangerous at the best of times, but is even more of a risky strategy if you are addressing what could be a difficult audience.

Using notes also helps to enhance the impression that you have spent time carefully preparing what you want to say.


How to use notes during a presentation

So, it is not really a case of whether you should use notes during a presentation. The question really is how best do you use them?

We tell delegates on our presentation skills training courses that the key with notes is to avoid falling into the trap of using them as a script which you read word for word. That will ensure you struggle to create a connection with your audience and many of them will switch off and stop listening.

A good way to avoid this is to make sure you don’t write full sentences in your notes. Stick to writing down key phrases and headlines in a bullet point format as a memory aid.

It is also important that they are easily scanable so that you just need to glance at them to know what comes next. You don’t want to spend time trying to work out what your own handwriting says. Plenty of white space is helpful here so you can easily find your place.

If you are going to use notes, don’t try to hide it or apologise for using them. Both of these approaches suggest a lack of confidence.

Be open about taking a moment to occasionally glance at your notes. These pauses will feel like they last much longer to you than they do the audience and as we have said earlier, they show that you care and have prepared.

One risk with notes is that they can become a distraction for the audience if you carry them around the stage, gesture while holding them or fiddle with them in your hands. So put them on a lectern and table and head back to them when you need them.

Nine errors to avoid in your next presentation 


PowerPoint notes

Presentation tools like PowerPoint offer a notes section which can be useful. But the danger is that presenters actually create more slides to accommodate their notes. And nothing turns off an audience quite like a slide heavy presentation.

There is also the risk the speaker resorts to simply reading the text from the slides – another guaranteed way to disenchant an audience as no-one ever went to a presentation hoping to hear someone read aloud.

If you really want to read a prepared presentation or speech, our presentation training courses can provide speakers with a chance to use an autocue so reading becomes less obvious.


Ultimately, the more you rehearse and become familiar with the content of your presentation or speech the less likely you are to need to use your notes.

But they can help make speeches better and at the very least offer a valuable backup.


What to do before your next presentation


Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 


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