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Cue cards – curse or comfort blanket? The jury’s out…

A training client asked my opinion last week on cue cards and whether using them might damage his reputation on the speaker circuit.  And then yesterday I myself spoke at a conference (on ‘Growing your own confidence’) alongside 7 other contributors.  I noticed that, across the group of speakers, there was a variety of techniques in action.  Some used typed notes (on either A4 or A5 sheets), others relied on PowerPoint, while my preferred option is hand-written, postcard-sized cue cards.

So, what’s right?  What’s wrong?  Where is the jury on notes/no notes?

There are two notable examples of where the notes/no notes issue has been critical.  In Blackpool in 2005, David Cameron spoke without notes and won the leadership contest.  In September 2014 Ed Miliband spoke without notes, left out large chunks of his content and, well, where is he now?

In both cases, the comms teams were focused on their man’s style of delivery, the performance, the impact this act of bravura would have on the audience (in the room and beyond) and on the media.  Content was secondary.  In one instance the gamble paid off, in the other, disaster.

My belief is that presentations should not be about the speaker.  They are because of/about/for the audience.  The speaker is merely a conduit for fantastic content which is relevant, important, engaging and memorable.

Therefore, it logically follows that if you’re going to communicate your content to your audience with greater confidence and skill by using notes, by all means reach for those cards.  It will be a better presentation, and the chances are, the audience won’t leave the room talking about your cue cards.  They will depart discussing what you told them; how you inspired them; what they’re going to do differently because of your speech.

However, there are some ‘technical’ considerations to grapple with.  It’s important to practice using notes so that they don’t become a barrier between you and your audience.  Hold them low, ideally at waist level or below.  Avoid waving them around.  Make sure the writing is large enough that you can merely glance down at them.  Be certain you’ve got just the right word(s), to prompt the story/idea (you may go through several versions of your cards until you have the perfect set of words).

And, if you’re using a hand-held microphone, rehearse how you’re going to handle that and the cards, and how you’re going to move through the cards.  It sounds like a small detail but such small details make or break presentations (I am, as you may know, an advocate of Dave Brailsford’s ‘marginal gains’ theory).

So, members of the jury, as you retire to consider the evidence and contemplate your verdict, might I direct you to find in favour of cue cards.  All rise.