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10 tips on how to use cue cards

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Regular readers of my articles or those who've attended one of my seminars know that my recommendation is always to rehearse your presentation so you can deliver it without notes. BUT ......... it's easy for me to say that, I do this for a living. If presenting without notes fills you with dread in case your mind goes blank and you forget your own name, never mind the presentation topic, don't worry about it. Winston Churchill, JFK and Martin Luther King all spoke from a script, and President Obama never makes a major speech without an autocue.

Cue card

But if you're not presenting or speaking from behind a lectern, holding and reading or referring to a sheaf of papers looks amateurish (plus any handshaking nervousness will be amplified). Far better is to use cue cards (e.g. standard office supply index cards) which contain pointers about what you're going to say rather than every single word.

So here are my top 10 Tips for using cue cards:

1. Number the cards in the same place on each card (e.g. the top right-hand corner).

2. Use one card for each of your PowerPoint slides.

3. Write on one side of the card only. You don't want the audience trying to read what's written on the back, and turning the cards over looks less slick than simply placing each card on the bottom of the pile when you've finished with it. If you have too much information to fit on one side, you're probably writing too much down. Simplify it. Strip it down. The less there is on each card, the less you will look at them and the more you'll look at the audience.

4. Write neatly, in larger than usual CAPITAL LETTERS. Your best handwriting may appear legible when you're scribbling it down, but you'd be surprised just how illegible it can appear in dim lights or when you're feeling under pressure.

5. Double space the content. Leave plenty of white space around each trigger word or phrase to make them stand out.

6. Write the following on each card:

  • an opening statement. This will help you get over the mental block of ‘what am I going to say’ which can affect presenters at the start of each slide. If you've practiced your presentation enough, the block will disappear once you say the opening phrase.
  • three to five supporting trigger words. These should not be a direct copy of the bullets on your slide. They are keywords (single words wherever possible though the occasional phrase is OK) to jog your memory. Select ones that work for you. They are your cue cards; different words would work for you than would work for me. Double check the effectiveness of these as you go along to make sure they work. If you're not able to instantly recall the content by just glancing at the trigger words, choose different words.
  • key facts, names or quotations

7. Use several different colored pens, e.g. black for the opening statement, blue for trigger words, red for numbers, green for quotations, etc. Alternatively, you could write it all out in black and then use different color highlighters, but be careful about your color choice; red, for example, can hide the underlying text.

8. In the bottom right-hand corner, write something about the next slide as a reminder of what is next to come. This will also help you with a transition phrase to ease you smoothly on to the next slide without you having to use the slide itself as your memory jogger.

9. Absorb. Look. Speak. This is a sequence. You should absorb each trigger word, look up and then speak. Note the important bit here is to remember always to look up before speaking. This way you maximize eye contact with the audience.

10. Practice, practice, PRACTICE! Cue cards are NOT a substitute for rehearsal. You should be so familiar with the contents of the card that you only have to glance momentarily at them to be reminded of what you already know.

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