How I use speaker notes

At Nest With Fedora last week, someone said “I also gave my presentation without speaker notes. It’s like doing slideshow karaoke with one’s own slides.” That sparked a discussion of the different ways people use (or don’t use) speaker notes. So I thought I’d write about my own practice.

Speaker notes, if you’re not familiar, is the feature of most presentation tools that allow for additional notes not shown on the slides. These are usually displayed on a second screen that might also include a timer, the next slide, etc. The idea behind speaker notes is that it gives the speaker a reference for what they want to say. This avoids the speaker having to memorize the presentation—or worse, make slides full of text that they read to the audience.

How I don’t use speaker notes

I have never gotten in the habit of using speaker notes. Perhaps it’s because my formative slide deck years were ones in which I had but a single monitor? Even now (well…in the Before Times™), I occasionally end up in a venue where the second screen option doesn’t work well. And if you have to fall back to a PDF of your slides, then the notes won’t be visible either.

So how do I avoid the wall-of-text slides? Sometimes I don’t. But mostly I do it by preparing. For most presentations, I start by building an outline. Then I write a long-form version. This is sometimes useful with minor edits as an article or blog post. From there, I build my slides. Then I practice a couple of times. So by the time I get on stage, I’m pretty familiar with what I want to say.

How I do use speaker notes

Where I find speaker notes useful is for people who are looking at the presentation after the fact. I’ve been told “the slides shouldn’t be useful on their own.” That advice isn’t about intentionally making a bad experience, but because the slides should reinforce what you’re saying. Otherwise, you should just hand out a document.

This means if anyone looks at your slides later, they need the greater depth that you’d speak. This is where speaker notes come in handy. And that “anyone” can also be Future You. I gave a talk earlier this year that I hadn’t delivered since fall of 2019. I used my speaker notes to remind myself what the images were supposed to represent. Speaker notes are also a great way to add additional citations, etc.

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