Public Speaking Myths: Would Steve Jobs Ever Use Note Cards?

Is it a sin to use notes when giving a speech? Should you have your presentation memorized and so well practiced that you never need to glance at a note card?

According to Garr Reynolds over at Presentation Zen and an email from Eric Feng at The Public Speaking Blog, you should never, ever use notes or cue cards. To do so, according to them, means certain death as a speaker.

I wholeheartedly disagree. There is nothing wrong with using notes as long as you don’t misuse them.

But before I dig into this, you should know that both Garr’s and Eric’s directives were inspired by Cingular’s CEO Stan Sigman’s recent speech at MacWorld back in January. Apparently Stan bored his audience by reading his speech from his 4×5 note cards. Ugh! Not only did he lose his audience but he inspired the online insults and distain of several bloggers who were in attendance.

But was Stan’s demise because of his use of notes or his misuse of notes? I believe it was the latter. I agree that no one should read their speech from there notes. If you’re going to read it, you might as well not even bother to present it.

There is a way to use notes effectively and confidently. To ellaborate, let me jump off of the points from Dale Carnegie that Garr used in his blog post. (They appear near the middle of his post).

Point One: "Notes destroy fifty percent of the interest in your talk."

My Take: Only if you read them or are so tied to them that you aren’t able to speak conversationally, naturally. Notes won’t "destroy" anything if you use them as a tool to keep you headed in the right direction.

Point Two: "Notes prevent contact and intimacy with the audience."

My Take: Again, only if your face is stuck in them and you are reading from them. You can be in connection and relationship with your audience and still glance at your notes from time to time.

But here’s the trick. If you need to look at your notes, stop speaking, glance at them, then look up and be with your audience before you start talking again. Do not speak to your audience while looking at your notes. THAT will cut the connection with your audience. But an audience won’t feel cut off if you glance at your notes UNLESS you try to hide the fact you are doing so. More on this in Point 6.

Point Three: "Notes create an air of artificiality."

My Take: I don’t even know what that means.  How does using notes create an air of artificiality?

Point Four: "Notes make the speaker look less confident, less powerful."

My Take: This is true only if the speaker isn’t confident about using notes. If you feel you shouldn’t be using them, that you need to apologize for using them, then yes, you may come across as embarrassed and ill at ease.  But if you are comfortable using your notes, if you don’t feel any need to apologize for them, then you can use them with confidence.

As for looking less powerful, pleeeeeze! Should we be worried about looking powerful? Isn’t it more important to actually feel powerful? If you feel empowered and more confident by using notes, than you will also appear confident and powerful.

Point Five: "Make lots of notes in the preparation of your talk, but use them only in the event of a total emergency."

My Take: A total emergency? Oh, that’s great advice. I’m sure you will feel much more confident and at ease if you wait until it’s an emergency before looking at your notes. Heaven forbid you grant yourself the comfort and ease of looking at your notes BEFORE it becomes an emergency.

Point Six: "If you must use notes make sure the audience does not see them. That is, "…endeavor to hide your weakness from the audience.""

My Take: Gack! This one just makes me crazy! Not only does it insult you and your audience, but it implies that you need to hide yourself from them, that you can’t reveal the fact that you need to glance at your notes. Why? Do you think your audience really cares?

If you try to hide what you are doing from your audience, you will lose connection and intimacy with them. You won’t lose them by using your notes, but you will lose them by trying to hide the fact you are using them.

Hiding anything implies a certain shame, embarrassment or secrecy which creates suspicion, uncertainty and distrust in your audience. Be real and out in the open with your audience and you will not only invite an authentic connection and intimacy with them but you will establish yourself as credible and trustworthy.

So, no, don’t read your speech from your notes. Use them only to jog your memory and keep you on track. Often, just knowing that they are there offers you enough support to not have to use them at all. But if you do, don’t try to hide it. Stay in connection with your audience by letting them see you glance at them. Don’t talk into your notes. Take a glance then lift your head and let your eyes be available to your audience before you resume speaking.

And, Stan, don’t give up. I know it must have felt horrible to have your audience squirming in their seats as you were talking. I mean, reading. But you just need a little coaching. You’ll do better next time.

2 replies
  1. Australia's public Speaking Coach
    Australia's public Speaking Coach says:

    Great post!!!

    While I am generally against notes, they are not the worst thing that can happen. Mis-using notes is.

    Some people don’t have the ability (or have not been trained in the how too) to speak with out notes. A little practise can help with public speaking and using notes.

    Unfortunately there are too many “rules” in public speaking that people say that you have to follow. Yes there are a number of rules that you have to know, but do not have to follow.

    Case in point: Never ever turn your back to the audience while speaking to them. If you have ever been to a Toastmasters club, you will have been advised of this “rule”. However, I recently broke it in spectacular fashion and made a huge impact with it.

    I was speaking at the District 73 Toastmasters Table Topics Competition. This is the Final. About 2000 people had competed in the competition up to this point. There were 7 people left, and I was one of them. The topic we had to speak on (with no preparation time) was “if you break all the rules you miss out on half the fun”. I decided to break some speaking rules and see how much fun I could still have. I turned my back on the audience and began to speak. The audience was in fits of laughter as I spent 20 seconds talking to the back of the stage. I then proceeded to break as many rules as I could in my 2 minutes.

    What was the result? Well I won the competition!!!

    So, even though Toastmasters has a rule saying that you should not turn your back on the audience, i did and still won!!!

    The trick is to know how to break the rules.

    You can get a full write up of my speech at


    Darren Fleming

  2. Eric
    Eric says:

    Interesting post Nancy! What I thought was extremely helpful for our readers is to allow them to see both sides of the coin – Should we use cue cards? At the end of the day, the question is on the workability of your cards i.e will your cue cards distract or forward you?

    If having cue cards prevent you from connecting and relating with your audience, then I say go without.

    On a another note, it could also mean that the cue cards are not written well enough, which causes the speaker to READ from the cards instead of just glancing to get clues of what to say next.

    So at the end of the day, two qns to ask:
    (i) will cue cards distract or forward me?
    (ii) are my cue cards written effectively to help me on stage?



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