For their final speech of the semester at the Harvard Kennedy School, I asked my students to reduce their reliance on notes.

Why? Because when we rely on notes, it affects so much of our presentation.

  • It affects our authenticity, because we are reading from notes instead of speaking to our audience.
  • If affects our engagement, because when we read from a script, our flat intonation makes the audience tune out. 
  • It affects our persuasiveness, because it looks like we don’t know our material.

Having said that, I acknowledge that notes can be helpful. In fact, I have used notes for most of my speeches or presentations, with the exception of my TEDx talk in 2013. The goal is to make notes available for easy reference and not to make them the main focus of your presentation.

Here are 3 ways to use notes effectively

  • Use your own words. Our content drives our delivery, so if you are simply memorizing the talking points of your organization, it will be harder to remember those points. When you write using your own words, and include personal anecdotes, you make your presentation easier to remember.
  • Write your speech first, then reduce it to an outline. For unfamiliar or high-stakes topics, or if you are giving a speech in a foreign language, I normally recommend people write everything out word-for-word. Read that speech out loud and make sure it feels natural; time it to make sure you are keeping to your allotted time. Then, you can reduce it to an outline, and you’ll feel more comfortable using that outline during the presentation.
  • Put your notes somewhere you can easily see them: If you are presenting on camera, keep your notes as close to the camera lens as possible so you can unobtrusively refer to them. Make the outline in a large font with plenty of white space so you can easily find your place. Write out your transitions if necessary so you can easily move on to the next topic.

These are a few of the strategies my students and I discussed as they prepared for their final speeches – which, by the way, have been incredible! 

Regardless of your industry, the goal of a speech or presentation is to build trust and connection with your audience. By using notes effectively, you keep your focus on your audience and on your impact.