Read, Memorize, or Use Notes?

Do you know when to read, memorize, or use notes?

Lisa B. Marshall
5-minute read
Episode #33

I do understand why people do it. Usually, it’s because they are afraid of skipping an important point. Or sometimes it’s because English is their second language and memorizing ensures they’ll use the “right” words.

However, if people stop listening to you because your presentation sounds boring and memorized, it doesn’t matter if you skip a point or if you don’t use the right words. I think a compelling, conversational, passionate delivery, even with mistakes, always wins over a perfectly memorized speech (unless, of course, you are trained actor).

So what can we (non-actors) do to improve our delivery without reading or memorizing the entire speech?

Effective Practice without Notes

Practice. Practice frequently while you’re preparing the talk. Most people get started late, and continue to work on the presentation until the last minute. They might practice aloud once or twice the night before. Worse, some people try to wing it without any practice at all. 

Try to practice individual slides or sections as you are working on them. Don’t worry if you’re not completely done with that slide or the entire presentation. Practicing in small bursts is far more effective than practicing for the same amount of time at the end.

The best way to practice is with a partner. Don’t try to “present”; just sit side by side and conversationally explain your ideas. Try a few different ways of explaining the same material and record the conversations. Once you’ve smoothed it out, create notes from the recording. Capture the sequence of your ideas, not the exact words. With each practice session, rehearse the previous parts plus the new stuff. Each session shouldn’t last longer than 20 or 30 minutes.

Research shows that people are more likely to remember your first and last words. So you’ll want to practice your opening and concluding points the most. Some people find that giving extra practice to transitions also helps a great deal. Ideally, you’ll want to practice all the parts separately enough times so that you can present the work conversationally without having to rely on anything but your mind.

Using Notes

Practically speaking, however, at times you’ll need to depend on your notes to help you deliver the presentation. Many people don’t create separate notes and instead try to use the projected slides as their notes. But I don’t recommend that. If you do, you’re likely to have poorly designed slides with too much text. In addition you’ll deliver the speech poorly if you keep looking at the projected image instead of making eye contact with the audience

It’s best to create and use separate notes.   Keep in mind that notes are just that—notes, not a script. Use key words and short phrases to remind yourself of the points you want to make. I sometimes like to also include behavioral reminders like relax, breathe, and smile.

I use the notes feature in MS PowerPoint. When delivering presentations, I always use “Presenter’s View,” which lets me see my notes for the current slide on my laptop while the audience sees the current slide projected. (By the way, you need the latest version of the software to use this feature on a PC.) If you prefer to use a hardcopy, try to fit all your notes onto a single page or two. Whatever method you use, it’s important to practice using your notes so that you don’t fumble with them.

Ultimately, each situation may require you to take a different approach. If it’s a political or legal announcement, then reading is the way to go. If you’re an expert making a presentation, you won’t need to read and you probably shouldn’t use notes, since it could hurt your credibility. And if you’re a student or someone presenting someone else’s ideas, using notes is probably a good idea in order to keep yourself on track. In all cases, it’s important to practice talking about the ideas in ordinary conversation long before the formal presentation is complete.

This is Lisa B. Marshall. Passionate about communication; your success is my business.

If you have a question, send email to publicspeaker@quickanddirtytips.com. For information about keynote speeches or workshops, visit lisabmarshall.com. You can also be a part of The Public Speaker communities by joining in on Facebook or Twitter.

Presentation image courtesy of Shutterstock


About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.