Imagine you have a big presentation next week and you’re unsure what to bring with you on stage. You know your subject matter but are afraid of losing your place halfway through the speech. At the same time, you don’t want to write the speech out and memorize it because you’re afraid it will sound inauthentic.
One of the most frequently asked questions I receive is: What type of notes should I bring to my presentation: bullet points, a script, or nothing at all?
First and foremost, I do not recommend memorizing your speech word-for-word; when you do that, you spend more time trying to recall the next phrase than you do connecting with your audience. For that same reason, I don’t recommend using a script of your speech: it’s difficult to make a connection with the audience if your eye contact, voice, and energy are focused on looking down at your words.
Most of the time, it’s perfectly fine to bring bullet points with you to a speech or presentation. Because many people fear forgetting their main messages, having the bullet points nearby can reduce speech anxiety. You are able to relax and focus on your message; then, if you need to remind yourself of the next point, you can glance down at the bullet points to find your place.
There are times when it is acceptable to bring the script of the entire speech with you to the presentation, such as during a formal occasion when you had limited time to prepare or a legal proceeding in which every word matters. However, most of the time, simply bring bullets.
Here are some tips for using bullet points:
1. Write brief phrases instead of full sentences: When you glance down at your notes, it’s easier to find your place if you look for a phrase rather than a full sentence. Phrases also help you speak conversationally instead of reading from a script. If the story in your speech is about an experience in Miami, write “MIAMI” instead of writing out, “Let me tell you about some work we’re doing in Miami, Florida.”
2. Use lots of white space: Don’t try to cram all of your bullets onto one page; include spaces in between every point so you can easily find your place.
3. Print single-sided pages: Using single-sided paper helps you easily move from one page to the next, while double-sided notes require you to flip the paper back and forth which can confuse you. Write page numbers at the top of each page in case they fall out of order before (or during!) the speech.
4. Use large font: Print or write your bullets in large font so you don’t have to squint at a piece of paper – it will be quicker and more seamless to glance down if you can easily read the words.
5. Practice the speech with the bullet points in front of you: Speaking from bullet points takes practice as you’ll need to add in transitions and descriptions on your own. Make time to practice giving the speech with the bullet points so you familiarize yourself with where the words fall on the paper.
6. During the speech, rest the notes on a lectern or table: Try not to hold them in your hand, otherwise they may reveal your shaky hands or you may subconsciously start to play with the paper. Also, feel free to move around the stage, away from the lectern. It creates a better connection with your audience and you can always walk back to your notes when you need them.
7. Don’t apologize for looking down: It’s natural for us to look down and find our place; it’s not a fault or mistake. Simply pause, nod thoughtfully, look down, and keep going. The more comfortable you are, the more comfortable the audience will be.
Unless you’re giving a TED talk, it’s OK to use some form of bullet points – and bullets are always preferable to a script. It does take extra time to prepare, but it leads to a more authentic and more engaging speech for all involved.
There are two versions of every speech: the version you write and the version you deliver. They are rarely the same, and that’s OK as it keeps your speech fresh and authentic.
Take the time to create bullet points that remind you of your main points, practice using those notes, and then focus on your message and your motivation. The more comfortable you are with your message and the more prepared you are when you walk on stage, the more powerful your speech will be.