All Articles Leadership Communication Note cards can be a leader’s best friend

Note cards can be a leader’s best friend

Old school note cards can be an effective tool for leaders who need to remember facts quickly, especially when under pressure, writes John Baldoni.

3 min read


note cards

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One of the things I have long advised executives to develop and practice their key messages is to have a succinct summary and overview of significant issues — even if they are on note cards. Doing so keeps the executive on top of what is happening, so when asked about an issue, they have a response.

Working with a communications professional to help develop these messages is even better. David Frum, former speechwriter for George W. Bush, writes in The Atlantic about how the White House comms team produced “cheat sheets” for the president. His successor, Joe Biden, continues the practice. Yet, as Frum says, “Some of [Biden’s] supporters have expressed alarm that a president would do such a thing. Perhaps these cards — aide-mémoire, after all — are a sign of age and frailty?”

No, argues Frum, explaining that then-much younger Bush used them regularly, particularly after being caught off guard by a fact he could not remember. And Bush did not try to hide his note cards. As Frum explained, the cheat sheets — more elaborate than a single key message — contained information about the audience, the issue, key facts and even jokes and additional thoughts.

Developing note cards is a savvy practice. Who wants a president’s — or any senior leader’s — head filled with trivia? An executive’s job is to know the big picture, not the minutiae. But, having too much on the mind can be taxing and keeps the executive from concentrating on what is truly important.

Tell your story

Here are some suggestions for building your note cards (or having a professional do it for you.) 

Present the context. The cheat should sketch the story. Why is the issue important? What is its impact on others? What has been done previously? Consider it a story that needs to be told from the executive’s perspective. And be honest. (Obvious, yes, but in our age of spin cycles, it is ignored.)

Pepper in the facts. As you would season a stew, add critical ingredients — the facts and figures relevant to the issue. State the positives, but do not hide the negatives. Be straight with the data. You gain respect by telling the truth. 

Know an anecdote or two. Make the issue personal. Talk about what it means to people. Present the benefits of an initiative by sketching.

Review the cheat sheets. Before speaking to an audience of two or more, review the content. Revise regularly to keep them fresh. Significant issues never disappear. They linger, but the response to the issues needs to be freshened.

One more thing. For formal presentations, a teleprompter is still widely used. Note cards are used in less formal environments when full scripts are not needed.

Don’t wing it

 “Being the president is a tough job,” Frum concludes. “It’s the center of everything. It comes with a huge staff for a reason. Winging it is not a virtue.” That dictum applies to anyone in leadership.

Knowing your messages and putting them on paper is a good exercise. It helps you organize your thoughts. Having them ready will free your mind to focus on what’s important. Surprisingly, you may not even refer to your note cards. You will have internalized them. 

And so you can speak comfortably knowing that if you need a specific fact, you are holding it right in your hands.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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