Last week, I gave a talk at the “On the Edge” Digital Marketing Conference on building strong relationships with your marketing agencies. Right before I went up on stage, as I was quietly reviewed the flow of my slides one last time, one of the organisers came up to me and asked me a question that comes up a lot.
“Do you still get nervous when you do public speaking?”
“Yes, always,” I emphatically responded. I think we all wonder if others get nervous since most of us do get nervous before public speaking. Even the most seasoned speakers I know still get nervous before getting up on stage. Public speaking involves putting yourself out there. It involves having a room full of people staring at you. It involves being “100% on” while you’re on stage to keep those people interested an engaged.
When you’re doing public speaking, there’s absolutely nowhere to hide. You’re under a spotlight (sometimes literally) and under a social microscope with phrases you’re uttering being tweeted in real time to the world. Sometimes, you’re being recorded, and these days, those videos stick around for a LONG time. When it goes well, it’s absolutely euphoric. And when it doesn’t, it can haunt you, especially these days when everything seems to live permanently online.
No matter how many public talks I give, whether in front hundreds or only a handful of people, I still get the butterflies every single time before I step up and start talking. No fail. Every single time. I’m a very strong introvert, so being in front of an audience isn’t exactly my comfort zone. In fact, I typically have a hard time staying asleep the night before, perhaps due to a combination of nerves & excitement.
Although I expected the audience to be small (100-125 attendees) for this particular conference, this day was no exception when I found myself wide awake just before 5:00am in my hotel room. Instead of trying to fall back asleep, I decided to spend the morning doing sit-ups, something I find myself doing these days to get rid of nervous energy. At least it helps keep me in shape!
After giving this talk, a few people came up to me during the break to ask how I prepared to give this talk. So I thought I’d share a behind-the-scenes look into what I do to prepare in advance of delivering any sort of public talk or presentation. Here are 5 things I always do to get myself ready:
Do one final tidy-up of the slides
In the process of pulling content together, it’s easy to overlook typos, incorrect fonts, or a flow that’s not 100% natural. The last thing I want is to spot a typo on my slides when I’m presenting. So I go back through and give it one final scrub. This involves:
- Making sure any images with any rights reserved appropriately credited (I use only images with a Creative Commons license).
- Doing one final spell & grammar check
- Ensuring my font faces are all consistently used
- Giving it one final read for legibility. When in doubt, I bump up the size of the font.
- Ensuring all my necessary contact details are on the final slide
- Taking one last bird’s eye view of the overall flow in slide sorter mode to ensure the story is logical.
Adding in all talking points, one slide at a time
In the slide notes section of every single slide, I add in all my talking points. I mean EVERY talking point. That includes pauses. Then I rehearse this gain and again. I type out my talking points to refer to them and practice what I’m going to say in a consistent fashion. I used to play tennis, and I equate this to hitting the same forehand in the exact same way from the exact same spot on the court again and again and again until it goes exactly where you want it to. Repetition creates muscle memory, and it’s no different when preparing for a presentation.
When I’m presenting, I don’t tend to refer to these notes, even though PowerPoint offers this view in “presenter mode.” I’ve seen too many presentations where the presenter is reading their notes or slides, which always seems to reduce the impact of their message, not to mention, completely sap the energy out of the audience.
Memorise the talk from start to finish
While I don’t do this for every single talk, my tendency now is to memorise. Every build, every sequence, every point. This is a bit painstaking, and not for the faint of heart, or the easily bored. I suppose I believe in the power of repetitive drills, and I certainly take this approach with presentations. I try to memorise in chunks, not from start to finish. So I’ll try to always break up every presentation into 3 natural sections. For some reason, I just like the number three. It’s what I did on my TEDx talk, and it’s what I try to do with all presentations. It just seems to click with me.
So if you think of the sections in letters and the slides in numbers, I rehearse A1, the A1+A2, then A1+A2+A3 and so on and so forth until I get though the entire section from start to finish. I then do the same for Section B and Section C. Then, I just add in a couple transitions between the sections and re-practice it from start to finish.
This is not fun. In fact, it’s excruciatingly boring. But I’ve found that my best presentations have been the ones where I take the time to at least attempt this.
Practice giving entire presentation from start to finish, then with interruptions
Even if I don’t have time to actually memorise my presentation, I always try to at least practice it a couple times from start to finish. Some people tell me that they’re comfortable just ad-libbing and referring to slides as they go. While that may be true for some, your presentation delivery after any shred of practice will always, ALWAYS, be better than giving your presentation cold for the first time to your audience. So I always force myself to practice my talk a bare minimum of 3 times. Once advancing the slides sitting at my laptop. Another time standing with a remote clicker & looking back at the slides. And at least one run standing with a remote clicker where I try not to look back at the slides.
Not looking back at slides was a tip I learned during my MBA studies from one of my most valuable mentors, Paul Kirsh, former head of the Entrepreneurial Studies program at the University of Michigan, Ross School of Business, and the first person who coached me on how to deliver an effective presentation. At the time, the context was pitching to potential investors, but all the lessons still hold true.
I also try to practice stopping in unnatural places then restarting again. I’ve been interrupted before during presentations, so I try to practice this to avoid getting flustered. This actually came in handy when I had an issue with the slide clicker during my TEDx talk.
Pump myself up emotionally before I go on stage
The more I give public talks, the more I realise that 95% of it is preparation before you go on stage, but when you get up there, 100% of it is psychology. So I do everything I can to quietly focus myself, energize myself, and do whatever I can to act confident the moment I’m in the public spotlight. This starts before I actually go up on stage. I embody this attitude the moment I feel like others are beginning to watch me. Because belief is huge before you do anything scary.
So while I will spend the early morning going through my talk one more time in my head, once I’m less than an hour away from speaking, I start focusing on my psychology and body language. I try to stand up straight. I try to walk confidently. I try to do everything confidently, whether it’s confidently chatting with people sitting around me, confidently networking, confidently walking, or even confidently eating! I try to physically act as if I’m confident so that I actually begin to FEEL more confident, not the other way around. You want your audience to believe your presentation will be great before you even say anything.
I hope these tips help give you some insight into how you can prepare to deliver an important presentation. The advice is not for the faint of heart. It takes a ton of work, but if you’re willing to put in the time and effort, you’ll soon discover you do have the power to leave a lasting impression with everyone in the audience.
— Marc Weeks (@TweetWithMarc) September 24, 2014
— Simon Lewis (@iamsimonlewis) September 24, 2014
Become a more memorable public speaker
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