The lost art of notes

In my post The PowerPoint Revolution hasn’t gone far enough I said that PowerPoint should be an equal partner in our presentations.

There’s a major obstacle to implementing this principle. That’s using the PowerPoint slides as your notes. If you use PowerPoint as your notes, PowerPoint always cues you. You click, you speak, click-speak, click-speak.

If you use PowerPoint slides as your notes, you’re relegating PowerPoint to an administrative role – a crucial one – but still administrative. That means it can’t be an equal partner with you. Until it can break out of that role, you can’t exploit it’s full power.

istock_danceWhen you dance with your slides as equal partners, sometimes PowerPoint leads, sometimes you lead. For examples of this, see my post Dancing with your PowerPoint Slides.

To be able to dance with your slides you need to know what’s going to come up on the screen when you click. No longer do your PowerPoint slides cue you. You cue your PowerPoint slides. That means you need notes.

Notes used to be an essential item for every speaker, but as PowerPoint took over, the slides became our notes – much to the distress of audiences. The younger participants on our courses have never used notes, and the more mature ones have forgotten how. Notes are a lost art.

Notes are not a script. They are like a high-level road map which show you the main way-points, but not every little lane you might go on. Notes don’t say what you want to say – they cue you to say what you want to say.

Guidelines for creating notes

  1. 6×4 unruled system cards are an ideal size for notes. Big enough to fit a few bullet-points, but small enough to be able to hold in your hand without distracting the audience.
  2. Write in large enough writing that you can read your notes when held in your hand at arm’s length or when placed on the table in front of you when you’re presenting.
  3. Use colour in your notes to code different types of content in your presentation. For example, you could use a specific colour for your Key Message, a specific colour for stories, and so on.
  4. You can create notes in PowerPoint (as we know PowerPoint is great at creating bullet-points). Print out the slides as “Handouts” two to a page, cut them out and then stick them onto the system cards.
  5. Number your notes.
  6. Punch a hole in the top left-hand corner of your notes and use a key ring to hold them together.
  7. Use a format for your notes that works for you. The most important thing is that you should be able to glance at your notes, find your cue, and look up again. Here are two options – bullet-points and a spatial mind-map:


Rehearse with your notes

Once you’ve created your notes, rehearse with them. Check out if they work for you. After a couple of rehearsals, you may find you don’t need as many words on your cards. Rewrite them with less words.

So now you’ve got notes for what you want to say – but how is that going to integrate with your PowerPoint slides. We’ll look at that in the next post…

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  1. There are powerpoint features such as displaying notes on your screen and not projected, and also where you can see the upcoming slide, isn’t this unnecessary.

    If you know your story well enough, you wouldn’t need cues anyway but still this may be a good idea for newbie presenters as the physical preparation of the cue cards will help drum in the story.

  2. Although I often suggest to stay away from technologies as much as you can, PP (and so Keynote) offers the Presenters view. On screen, for the audience, you have the slide, while on your notebook monitor you have the slide, the next one coming up and your notes. (Again BIG FONT will help)!

    Just my two-pence contribution

  3. @msleepyhead, @Paolo – Thanks for your comments on the ability to see your notes and your next slide using Presenter View in PowerPoint. The last time I used this, it was quite tricky technically to set-up, and also tricky to present with it – a little bit like trying to use several remotes while concentrating on something else. Maybe I should give it another go. I wonder if it’s improves in PP 2007?

  4. Come to think of it, whenever I discuss this issue with presentation professionals, most people know about Presenter View, but I’ve never come across anybody who’s actually used it!

  5. i really like your tips on how to use the notes.however, i would try not to use notes when presenting, and that will be more professional alike.

    • Thanks Jason for your comment.

      I think it’s great if you can do your presentation without notes – and still be organised and stay on track.

      However, for most people in everyday presenting situations (ie: not professional speakers, keynotes etc) it’s not a realistic goal. Most people don’t have the time it takes to successfully internalize a presentation. I think it is quite possible to deliver a presentation professionally with notes. Two tips on this:

      1. Only look at your notes when you need to, to remind yourself of what you want to say next.
      2. When you look at your notes, stop talking. Once you know what you want to say – look up, find someone to talk to, and start talking again.


      • thanks for your reply?i just started to learn public speaking for a short time?and my friends recommended me your blog.i
        think your opinion is very useful for my growth in public presentation.

      • Hi Olivia,
        i think presetation with notes is a good idea. I like the idea “Punch a hole in the top left-hand corner of your notes and use a key ring to hold them together.”

        I rather prefer to rehearse the topic at home until I get familiar with it. With the notes I can easiliy forget to turn the pages. Do you know how to get over that?



        • Hi Jing
          The answer is to train yourself to turn the pages. Practice at home. Everytime you realise you’ve forgotten to turn the page, stop and turn it over. Do this a number of times and you will have trained yourself to remember to turn them over.

          An alternative is to have all of your notes on one page. But this normally means that the page has to be larger (at least A4) which makes it a bit more awkward to hold.


  6. Olivia:

    I preach just the opposite. Too many people play a subordinate role to the PowerPoint slides, which is a mistake. This is often done because people fear public speaking, so they hide behind their PowerPoint slides, even turning their back to the audience and reading the slides along with the audience.

    I just wrote a blog post about this. You might find it interesting.


    • Hi Mike

      I’m suggesting that PowerPoint can be an equal partner – certainly not a dominant partner. I agree with you that many people hide behind PowerPoint to deflect audience attention.


  7. Olivia,
    I use a presentation book for my notes. The kind with the clear pockets welded in and a decent cover so that it lies flat. I type my notes (not a script) into a word document and paste a small image of the slide in the appropriate place. This way I can always see what is coming up next. Don’t use a seperate page for each slide and notes, just let it flow, often with several slides/notes on one page, depending on how much you have to say between each slide.

    Great blog by the way.


    • Hi Chris
      That sounds like an excellent system. Thank you for your comments on my blog!


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