Cue Cards: - How to make and use them effectively

Making cue cards from standard office supply index or note cards (like those in the photograph) is relatively easy. Using them well will lift the quality of your presentation immeasurably.

White lined index cards


The answer is simple.

Because you not relying on, and reading from, a word-for-word text you are free to interact with your audience.

You are able to:

  • make eye contact,
  • respond,
  • gesture
  • and move freely.

You will sound, look and feel more present; 'in the moment'. Your entire delivery is enlivened.

For those of you who are nervous about making the transition from a full script to note cards, don't be. Take it slowly. Give your self time to thoroughly rehearse. You'll be delighted with the result.

How to make cue cards

A collection of different colored highlighters

You need a packet of standard index cards, a selection of highlighters, (for example, yellow, pink, blue and green), and an easily-read pen. I suggest using one with either blue or black ink.

The best (most useful) cue cards:

  1. have ONE main heading or idea per card
  2. are written clearly using larger than usual font (so you can read them easily)
  3. have plenty of white space around each word or phrase to help them stand out
  4. use bullet points or numbers to itemize the supporting ideas under the main heading
  5. are written on ONE side of the card only
  6. are clearly numbered so that you know the order they come in and/or they may even be tied together. (Drill a hole through the left corner and tie with a loop of string so that the cards can be flipped.)
  7. are color-coded to show your main idea, supporting ideas, examples and transitions or links.
  8. have where props are to be shown. For example: Main Idea One - Supporting Idea - Example - Show slide 1
  9. have approximate timings marked so you can track yourself through your allotted time. If you find you're going over you can adjust by leaving out an extra example or conversely if you're under time, you can add one in.

Preparing your speech for cue cards

Before starting on the cue cards themselves make sure you've got the flow of the speech how you want it.

Using your speech outline go through from the beginning checking the sequence of ideas,
supporting material and their transitions to ensure all your information is in an effective and logical sequence.

Do try it out loud and time it. You may need to edit if it's too long and it's a lot easier to do that at this stage.

Once you have the length right for your time allowance, if possible get other people to listen to you. Have them give you feedback on content, structure and delivery; paying particular attention to the introduction and the close. When you're satisfied you have your speech as you want it, you're ready to prepare it for cue cards.

If you haven't got an outline ...

Use this print-friendly blank speech outline template. It will make preparing your cue cards a breeze.

Is your speech being evaluated?

If your speech is being judged, find out what the evaluator will be marking you on. Check this standard speech evaluation form.

Writing up your cue cards

Each segment of your speech, from its introduction to conclusion, should  be reducible to a key word or phrase that will act as a prompt triggering your memory for what it was you wanted to say.

Go through your outline marking each of them. A good way to identify them is to remember the paragraphing structure that you use in written prose. A new thought or idea takes a new paragraph. In writing note cards a new idea or thought equals a new card.

(For more on choosing and using keywords to effectively remember your speech check this page on how to memorize a speech.)

Do not be tempted to write the whole of the text of your speech out. This defeats your purpose. You'll finish with cramped notes that, as well as being difficult to read, stop you from freely interacting with your audience.

Once you've finished identifying segments and giving each a keyword or phrase you're ready to write up your cards using the 1-9 guidelines above.

Decide on the color coding you're going to use eg. pink for main ideas and
blue for supporting ones. Yellow is for quotes and important facts. Green is for transitions.

Number each card as you go in the same place. The top right hand corner works well for me. I also write which part of the speech the card is for: introduction, body and conclusion as a heading in the top left. It helps me keep track of where I'm up to.

Double check the effectiveness of each card as you write them to make sure you are using keyword or phrases that actually do trigger your memory. This is particularly important for links or transitions. Forgetting how you got from one piece of information to the next not only leaves you stranded but your audience as well.

NB. Be sure to note the names of important people, facts or processes too.

Rehearsing with your cue cards

Young man standing in a spotlight on a stage

You'll find a full page here on 'how to rehearse'.

It includes notes specifically on rehearsing using your cue cards as well as other valuable tips for delivering your speech successfully.

Now that you've completed your set of cards, please don't short change yourself by assuming you are fully prepared and ready for delivery.

To use them well you really do need to practice with them. Before you give your speech aim for at least three concentrated rehearsal sessions. The tips await you. Go there now.

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