How To Write Speech Notes

How to create speech notes

Not that sort of notes!

Are you about to give a speech and wondering about the best sort of notes? Or, perhaps you have made a presentation and found that your notes didn’t work as well as you’d hoped?

Creating the right speech notes is quite difficult isn’t it? In this post we’ll look at how to create notes that work for you and help keep you on track when speaking to an audience.

We’ll offer some guidance in a minute, but first you might find it helpful to read our posts on how to plan a speech and how to structure a speech.

Speech Notes for You

Let’s explore how to write speech notes that will work for you.

Most of us don’t have the confidence to manage without notes. It’s great if you can do it really well. But generally, it’s a good idea to have some form of notes when you are speaking or presenting.

So, what are the best kind of speech notes?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. There isn’t a best kind!

Well, there is – it’s the notes that work for you. They are the ones that are right for the particular speech or presentation that you are making.

Shall we explore how to write speech notes? (Feel free to take notes!)

The Right Notes

Your speech notes can be hand-held small cards, or A4 pages if you have use of a lectern. Of course, there’s also technology. Mobiles or tablets can be used, possibly with the aid of an app. If you’re delivering a PowerPoint presentation, you can use the presenter’s notes if you wish. And if you’re asked to speak at a conference, you may even get to use a teleprompter. There are many possibilities.

One thing is for sure: don’t speak from a full script unless it is mandated by the event e.g. your script has already been released to the press. Delivering a convincing presentation from a script is challenging and requires a lot of practice if you aren’t to come over as completely wooden and unconvincing.

Let’s try to keep it fairly simple and leave technology for a future post. Here we’ll focus on paper or card notes. However, most of the principles could be applied to notes on mobile devices.

What to Include in Speaking Notes?

Hopefully you’ve read our earlier posts and have done some planning and thought about how you are going to structure your speech.

So what should be included in your notes? If you do nothing else, make a note of anything that you have to get right. For example, names, facts, dates and quotes.

When you speak to an audience you are under pressure. It is very easy to have a blank moment and forget some piece of information that is an important part of the message being delivered.

Most of the content isn’t critical. Only you will know exactly what you’d intended to say. If it comes out slightly differently, it won’t matter. But if you are delivering a speech for Fred’s retirement and you forget his name, or maybe worse, use the wrong name … oh dear!

When using a quotation, write it in full, possibly on a separate card – and it’s OK to be seen to read it from the card. There’s nothing worse than launching in with, ‘Albert Einstein said’, and then not remembering what it was he said. (Just in case you wondered, here’s a quote from the great man:
“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.”) 

Note Development

Practise your speech until you are familiar with it. It’s fine to start with quite a lot of notes. But then reduce them and try again. Maybe even give it a go without any notes to see how you get on.

Play around until you have as few notes as possible. You just want sufficient to keep you on track. The problem with notes is that the more you have, the more you will feel compelled to look at them. And then you aren’t making eye contact with your audience. Aim for as few notes as you feel comfortable with.

It may be helpful to use some colour in your notes. For example, you could use colour to highlight the really important stuff or to differentiate between sections. However, when using coloured text, or highlighters, just be sure that the notes are clearly legible in all lighting conditions.

At some events, speakers are given a time limit. Colour can be used to highlight the target time at different points in the speech so that you can check that you are on schedule.

Spending time developing speaking notes is time well spent. As you work on them, the content of your presentation will imprint itself in your mind. Then, come the day, you will be able to speak more fluently and with minimal reference to the notes.

Note the Venue

Before deciding finally what type of notes to use, it’s helpful to know the venue and what facilities will be available. If there’s a lectern, then A4 sized notes will probably be the best option.

A4 notes can still work if there’s a table in front of you. But you do need to know your speech very well so that you require very few notes and only need the occasional glance downwards. It helps if you can put something under the notes to raise them up a little. 

If there’s nowhere to put notes, the best solution is to use smaller cards that can be hand-held easily. Let’s look at each of them.

A4 Notes

An obvious point is that notes should be easy to read. Ideally, you want to be able to keep eye contact with the audience and scan the notes in your peripheral vision. Or at most, just take a slight downwards glance.

By the way, here we’re talking about notes, not a full script.

The fewer notes the better. Less information on the page mean that the words can be in a larger font and there can be more space around them. That makes them much easier to scan. The number of notes will depend on the length and context of the speech. A single piece of paper or card is simplest. But if more than one is required, number each page very clearly.

Card is better than paper. It is easier to turn over and doesn’t flap. Try turning up the bottom right-hand corners slightly. It will make it easier to grip the card and turn it without any fuss.

Small Cards

Various sizes are available but 15cm x 10cm (6” x 4”) offers a good balance between being easy to hold, fairly unobtrusive, and being large enough to contain a reasonable amount of information in a large font.

If more than one card is required, it is even more important to have them numbered very clearly. As an added safety measure, punching a hole in the top left-hand corner and threading a treasury tag through them will guarantee they stay in order, even if they are dropped accidentally. No tags from the Treasury? Then a piece of string with the ends knotted together works equally well.

Typed or Handwritten Notes?

We’ve talked about how to ‘write’ speech notes. But typed notes are better unless you have very clear handwriting. And with typed notes it’s easy to edit them and play around with font size and spacing until the optimum layout is achieved.

Don’t use BLOCK CAPITALS. They are harder to read because of the universal height and similar shape of them. With sentence case (lower case except for the first letter) the variations in height make it easier to recognise common words by their shape. As a result, they can be scanned more easily. Of course, a large font is a good idea!

Another advantage of typed notes is that they can be filed on your computer and reused, possibly with updates, if you need to give the speech again.

How to create speech notes - a review

Note Review

Did you take notes? No? Not to worry, here’s a summary of how to write speech notes that will work for you.

Firstly, try different types of notes to find out which sort you feel most comfortable with. You may find that different speeches or venues work better with different note types. The right notes are the ones that work for you.

Have as few notes as possible. The more notes, the more you will be drawn to look at them. And the less you’ll look at and engage with the audience.

Don’t be afraid to use colour to help with navigating through the notes.

Regardless of whether you use A4, small cards, typed or handwritten notes, it is essential to rehearse with them to feel confident when you stand up to speak.

If you’d like a different perspective on speech notes, you may find this article by Andrew Dlurgan interesting.

Happy note taking and speaking.


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