Inexperienced speakers are often afraid that they may be forgetting an important point of their talk or that they get stuck and can't remember how to continue. Which is one of the reasons why so many presentations have lots of text on their slides.
Cue cards would seem to provide a solution to this problem. They're handy when you get stuck and since you now have the text of your talk at hand (pun intended), you can use more visual slides and still make sure not to forget anything of importance.
The Problem with Cue Cards
The downside, however, is that people tend to look down on their cue cards a lot. This will disconnect you from your audience and can even give the impression that you're reading your talk off of those cards.
I was reminded of this during a recent presentation, where the speaker used cue cards. She did look at her cards a lot, leaving us with the impression that she was reading the talk, even though, realistically, she couldn't have written everything she said on them. In other words, the cards probably only contained a few keywords or short phrases, but it still looked (and sounded!) like a prepared speech.
It happens to the Best
Even experienced speakers can fall into this trap. At TEDxStuttgart, actor Alexander Schröder gave a thought-provoking talk (in German) about the Evil in all of us and whether it could be used for Good. He started giving the speech from memory (and without a microphone, btw - the one you see in the video is only for recording, not amplification). A few minutes into the talk, however, he got stuck and pulled out his cue cards to get back on track.
So far, so good - that's what cue cards are for. He wasn't using any slides, so there was no other way for him to trigger his memory. He did, however, make the mistake of keeping the cue cards out; he should have put them away again, once he found his lost thought, since he clearly didn't need them any more. Still, he held them in his hands and, inevitably, looked at them quite often. I've actually seen the cards in question and they really only had a few words on them. Still, from the video you get the impression that he's reading parts of his talk off of them.
When and How to use Cue Cards
Cue cards can be useful. Simply knowing that you have them, in case of a blackout, can help put your mind at ease. Preparing cue cards may actually help you such that you don't need them during your talk - much like, back in school, when preparing a cheat sheet caused you to concentrate on the material so you could extract the most important bits. This in turn helped you remember the material better, without you actually having to use the cheat sheet later.
If you decide to use cue cards, I'd say start your talk without them. See how it goes. I'd bet that in most cases you won't need them at all. If you have to consult them, put them away again as soon as you have found your train of thought to avoid the impression that you're reading a prepared speech.
An alternative to cue cards are the presenter notes that every slideware application supports: You can leave notes with each of your slides and have them shown to you (and only you) on your laptop during your presentation. This of course requires that you're near your laptop.
Also, it's important to realise that the audience most likely won't notice if you forget some minor aspect of your talk. Since it's not on your slide (you are using visual slides, I would hope), they won't know what exactly you are going to talk about. If it's an important point, it should have it's own slide, of course, so you won't forget it.
If you want to give a good and engaging talk, there's no other way than to rehearse. Visual slides (if you're using slides) will provide enough context for you to remember what you want to talk about, once you've rehearsed the talk a few times. If you know that you're going to have your laptop nearby during your presentation, add a few keywords (not complete sentences - you won't have the time to parse them when you're stuck!) to your presenter notes.
If you don't use slides or you can't use presenter notes, prepare cue cards if you feel you would need them. But only pull them out when you're really stuck - and don't forget to put them away again just as quickly.
(Photos: Stills from Alexander Schröder's talk at TEDxStuttgart)
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