When I finished the talk back in 2015, I felt a huge wave of relief. In the video, you can actually see my shoulders sag and my deep sigh as the audience applauds afterward. It was a once in a lifetime event. There were some great talks presented that day, and the audience was fantastic — eager and receptive. I received plenty of positive feedback on my talk, but later when I watched the video and saw that big sigh it hit a nerve. Why was I so glad it was over with?
I’d spent months preparing and rehearsing, and felt like I had some great content, but in those moments before I walked on stage, I was focused entirely on remembering the content, and hitting the marks. The audience was more a source of anxiety and fear than the recipient of what I hoped to share. Part of the difficulty was that I had to memorize the talk word for word. I found this difficult and even lost my place at certain points as I rehearsed that morning with my coach.
To be honest, though I was incredibly grateful for the opportunity, I felt like I missed a chance to connect and give my very best. I also wanted to enjoy it more.
Flash Forward: How I Accidentally Learned a Better Way
Recently I gave another talk, and this time, as I took the podium, I was eager to share my big idea. There was some standard nervousness, and I’d done less preparation than I normally would, but when introduced, I was thinking about my first words and how curious I was to see the reaction of the audience. I focused on their experience rather than my performance. I wanted to be generous with the message I had to share.
I’d written, “slow down!” at the top of my notes, and as I began to settle in to the material, I felt calm and mindful of the subtleties such as timing and pauses for effect.
It went swimmingly! Not the perfect talk, mind you (is there such a thing?), but when I finished, I felt deeply grateful. In fact, I’d like to give that talk again sometime! It felt like I had connected. Like I was onto something.
I normally agonize about preparing speeches. Similar to writing, there’s the difficulty of figuring out what my big idea wants to be, but the big difference is that writing is silent and solitary. When you step up to the mic your words instantly become public and audible. You will know immediately if it resonates. “This better be good” is my self talk about the talk.
This time I went through my normal regimen of collecting and writing far more on the topic than I’d ever use, but I cut it short. The night before the event I quit listening to my “it better be good” self talk and quit working on the material even though it didn’t feel done. I slept on it.
Next morning I had more clarity, but chose not to keep writing. I printed out what I had and headed to the venue early. There were a few folks there when I arrived, so I milled around with my notes, helped move some chairs, and found a quiet spot an hour before my talk, and asked myself, “What are the handful of things I really want to land in this talk?” I crossed out entire paragraphs. This was a little disconcerting because I knew I needed twenty minutes of material and I’d stopped at the requisite number of words (hat tip: humans talk at about 150 words a minute). I lengthened and shortened, guesstimating the duration.
I took my notes for another walk. Much of the stuff I’d written didn’t sound the way I would say it in conversation, so I just underlined the main point in those sections and decided I’d restate them in my own words.
I’d sketched out a story and, as I listened to myself, I caught an important wrinkle that I ironed out and added to my notes. I began to feel better about the story and the talk. There was something about the immediacy of the venue that caused me to want to talk with them, rather than at them.
I looked at the last page and it hit me what I needed to close with — what I hadn’t been able to plan the night before. It had simmered as I slept and bubbled up now in just two sentences that tied everything together in an unexpected, illuminating way.
Finally, I rehearsed the humorous parts and thought about the timing, facial expressions, etc.
I thought of how useful the content of the talk had been to me in my life and work. I became eager to share the information and the experience.
Before I began to speak, I paused, counted to three and began. I felt relaxed; I focused on the audience and adjusted the flow and emotion of my words. I picked three or four friendly faces I could “talk with” and directed my words to them.
Afterwards, I received kind feedback. There was the perfunctory thanks, but also some genuine, generous feedback that encouraged me and let me know I was on target. Folks asked for more information, or said things like “When you talked about such-and-such it made me think of so-and-so.” One elderly gentleman asked about the nonprofit I’d mentioned and offered some assistance. I left with some pregnant ideas to improve the talk next time. I wasn’t glad it was over. I was grateful for the opportunity. It was better than I expected, and easier.
Three Accidental Lessons
Reflecting on the experience, I realized there were three things I’d done that you can do to make your next talk your best one.
1. I was grateful for the audience. This may be the most important part of all. When you speak to an audience, minds can be changed. Done well, that change that can reverberate when it’s re-shared. You should cause people to leave with a different perspective than they arrived with. You should say thank you, but remember that your talk also expresses the gratitude you have for the kind souls who’ve who have graciously agreed to give you their attention. When you approach the podium with this kind of appreciation, it can turn your nervousness into anticipation.
2. I was excited about the opportunity. Look forward to your talk! When those pangs of anxiety arise before the event, replace “this better be good” with “I have a chance to make a difference!” Practice to make this your standard practice. For example, if the boss has asked you to lead the next meeting and start by reviewing first quarter results, you may have your work cut out for you, but you can create something, or at least part of something, that you’ll be excited share. Just a story or anecdote here and there, along with your eagerness, can make a big difference.
In preparing a keynote, if you don’t have a powerful, game-changing big idea you’re excited to share, don’t bother! Similarly, don’t let the hard work of preparation dampen your excitement. Keep at it until the excitement is embedded in your content and your countenance. That kind of energy is infectious. It will also help you go the extra mile in preparing something special. Your listeners should think to themselves as they listen, “Wow! She really believes this stuff!”
3. I was extremely interested in my ideas. Seems obvious, right? If you’re not interested, your audience won’t be. Sometimes we may feel we aren’t interesting enough to give a fascinating talk, but consider the talks you’ve enjoyed most. Aren’t they primarily about great ideas? When I watch Ken Robinson talk about education, it’s like he’s holding that topic up in front of the audience like a gem, and turning in the light of a shiny new perspective. A great idea is enough — more than enough. Focus on how interesting your big idea is, and you will deliver an interesting talk. If it doesn’t excite you, keep at it until it does!
Prepare Yourself, Not Just Your Talk
Yes, you still have to do the work! Preparation is paramount. Rehearsing the material is a must, and don’t wait until you’re done writing your talk to rehearse it. Writing is a silent act, speaking is noise. You need to hear your words, in order to find the right ones. Having your laptop or phone read them back to you is helpful. It’s about familiarity and becoming comfortable with the material. For the vital parts like stories and humor, it’s even better to video yourself.
Content, structure, and rehearsal are about what you say and how you say it. Choosing the right words to say and saying them well may seem like all there is to effective public speaking, but these things are precursors to what matters most. They free you to bring the most important element — your best self.
You have a presence, a countenance, you bring to every interaction.
Reflect for a moment on a meaningful, pleasurable conversation you’ve had recently. Did you know exactly what you would say or how you would say it beforehand? If it was a conversation with a loved one, you may have thought of a thing or two you wanted to say, but odds are your focus was to show up with sincerity, concern, and transparency. Probably not something you practiced before the fact, but more a way of showing up generously.
You can give your best talk ever, if you can show up generously and genuinely!