(9m reading time)

In this public speaking series I’ve been talking about how I prepare myself to deliver a challenging or lengthy talk. I’m usually sitting pretty if I prime my memory and memorize the foolproof way. However, acing an important presentation may need more than just getting the material into my head. When the stakes are high or the circumstances unfavorable, I take out insurance.

This insurance comes from safety netshybrid memorization techniques, and good old-fashioned rehearsal. To start, I look at my situation to figure out what insurance type I need.

Decide on Insurance

Don’t let it rain on your presentation.

As I remarked in my last entry, sometimes memorization alone can’t secure a calm, confident presentation. Happily it’s not difficult to recognize when I’ve got an insurance-worthy situation:

  • Outta time. In the previous post we talked about assessing memorization time, and in this case the math says I simply don’t have enough time to memorize my whole talk.
  • Outta practice. I don’t trust rusty tools. In this case it’s been a while since …
    • I’ve given a talk as long or as complex as this one.
    • I’ve spoken to such a big or important audience.
  • Novelty. I believe the saying “first time’s the charm” doesn’t exist for a reason. In this case it’s my first time …
    • presenting on this topic.
    • talking to an audience this big / important.
    • speaking at this conference or venue.
  • Poor track record. Sort of the opposite of the above. In this case I’ve done this type of talk before, and I had some trouble the last time.
  • Enemy territory. I make a point to know my audience. In this case I know my audience will severely scrutinize or challenge what I have to say. If you have ever tried to do research science, this should sound familiar.
  • Bedlam. Just as I try to know my audience, I try to know the circumstances around my talk. In this case circumstances have me competing with other distractions.

At the end of the day, the most important indicator that I need insurance comes from my gut–I feel nervous. Anxiety about the upcoming presentation signals that extra measures are worth taking. The good news: they don’t cost much time.

Insurance Policy 1: Use Trigger Cards

Index cards: So simple and yet so powerful!

Let’s look at protecting the information you’ve already memorized.

Once you have memorized a prep page, you know the exact words you want to say while showing a given slide. To aid your recall, write memory triggers on an index card. This technique comes from Steven Aitchison’s advice on essay memorization.

The memory triggers consist of the first three or four words of each sentence from your prep page. Give yourself the first words, and like magic your mind can fill in the rest. Per Steven:

write down the first few words of each sentence of your essay, separated by a comma, and number each line for each paragraph.

So a trigger card for the beginning of this post looks like this:

Trigger Card sample

I strongly recommend you use real, paper index cards as your trigger cards. I know, in the 21st century we have so many digital solutions that analog tools can feel silly. However, this technique works better with physical cards than with digital notes–especially those notes features in presentation programs (such as Microsoft PowerPoint’s “presenter notes”). Here’s why:

  • Paper cards pose no danger of exposure to the audience. If you can’t control the IT for your presentation, your digital notes may very well pop up on the big screen for all to see. It’s not the end of the world, but it can be embarrassing–especially if they stay up there for the whole talk.
  • Brokenlaptop
    Laptops can let you down.

    Paper cards mean you don’t have to stick close to a laptop or podium. If you rely on digital notes in your own “presenter view” laptop, then checking your place means getting within reading distance of that screen. Unless you have binocular vision, you may find you can’t move around much as a result. Depending on the venue’s setup, relying on your laptop can even force you to stand in an awkward place with respect to your audience or your slides.

  • Paper index cards don’t crash or run out of batteries. Bring your cards on-stage and rest assured: they’ll stand by you through your talk no matter what.
  • Paper cards mean you don’t have to interrupt your eye contact with the audience as much. If you need to check your notes on a laptop, you have to make the not-so-subtle move of turning your head towards that screen. You have to go to your notes. If you need to check your notes on a hand-held index card, you can bring your hand closer to your face. You can make your notes come to you. A quick glance down at your hand is less noticeable (and annoying) to your audience.

Paper index cards will stand by you through your talk no matter what.

  • Because they fit into the palm of your hand, index cards leave you free to gesture. Your notes support you, and you don’t have to hold something cumbersome (like your laptop or a tablet) to support them. Win win!
  • You control your place in the talk. If you’ve ever given a presentation where someone else advances slides for you, you know the pain of the accidental skip-ahead. You think you’re about to discuss customer satisfaction, but last year’s budget suddenly appears on the big screen. Don’t let that skip-ahead take your thought process with it! Holding your own ordered notes separate from the slide program will help you instantly recognize when IT has gone awry. You become free to decide how to handle the situation. Do you want to move back, or jump ahead to the next point? The good news is that you won’t get dragged along unwittingly.
  • Index cards don’t glow and distract your audience. Paper cards disappear onstage as no backlit screen ever could. Keep your audience’s attention on what you have to say, not that creepy blue radiance coming off your face.

All told, I think trigger cards are awesome. If I ever start feeling weird or lost while giving a talk, I quickly glance at my trigger card and it revs my brain up into the next sentence. Works like a charm!

Insurance Policy 2: Use Bullet Cards

Bullet cards look a great deal like trigger cards, however they focus on the slides you didn’t memorize. Rather, I should say: those slides for which you knew you wouldn’t have time to memorize the talking points verbatim. Because you figured that out in advance like we talked about, right?

An aside for those using prep pages:

If you did your setup correctly, you’ve already identified the prep pages for the slides you won’t memorize. You’ve already put those pages at the bottom of your stack because they make up the easiest, friendliest slides in your talk. Now you get to revisit them!

Grab those “no-memorizing” pages, taking care to keep them in order. Pull the page from the bottom of this new stack. You’ll work on this last page first because (if you sorted your prep pages correctly) it holds the words for your talk’s easiest slide.

Okay, time to make a bullet card!

Write down one or two key words for each sentence on the page, comma separated, with a new line for each paragraph.

This differs from Insurance Policy 1’s trigger cards in that these key words don’t necessarily form the start of the sentence, but rather capture the main point the sentence must make. Ergo this approach needs a little more judgment, but that’s why you start with the easiest slide–the simplest place to get the hang of it.

So a bullet card for the beginning of this post might look like this:

Bullet Card sample

See the difference? The bullet card simply provides you the critical words, and you become free to string them together with whatever phrasing you choose.

Work your way through the no-memorizing stack from bottom to top, and you’ll build a bullet card collection to keep you on point.

Insurance Policy 3: Rehearse

Practice makes perfect.

An unsurprising suggestion, no doubt. Doing a run-through pretty much always helps. So get your cards in order (if you plan to use them), and find a practice audience!

The person/people you live with (roommates, family members, deadbeat couch-surfers) make great victims audience members. They often don’t know or care much about your topic, so they become wonderful, apathetic test audiences. And since they love (or at least can tolerate) you, they provide a safe place to work the jitters and bugs out of your talk.

If you live solo, you need to get a little creative.

Pets offer a good starting point, but since they can’t ask questions they don’t make the best test audience members. Aim to have at least one adult human in your test audience. Call up a few trusted friends, neighbors, co-workers, or family members who live nearby, and arrange for them to come over. Let them know you’d like their help auditing an important presentation, and you can offer them drinks/pizza/dinner/lunch/ brunch/board-games in exchange for their time and feedback. It’s been my experience that most people are happy to help, especially if you’re clear with them about (a) how long the talk is and (b) the fact there will be beer.

Once you’ve got him/her/them rounded up, arm your test audience with the list of anticipated questions you came up with earlier. Set up your slides for easy viewing. My favorite approach involves plugging my laptop into my television to show my slides and plonking my test audience on the living room couch with some snacks. Do whatever works for you, just make sure to set up something (a monitor, your laptop, or slide printouts) for your viewers.

Rehearsals prove most effective when they emulate the circumstances of your impending talk. If you know you’ll stand facing a seated room, make sure you stand up during your run-through. If you plan to present at a closed board meeting, consider gathering the folks around the dining room table. If you expect your audience to bring hostility, ask your test audience members to interrupt you while you speak. In fact, I love practicing with people willing to look bored, sleepy, or annoyed during the talk–when the time comes, my “real” audience feels friendly by comparison!

Great test audiences are closer than you think.

Briefly explain your talk’s motivation and circumstances, and then dive in. Aim to speak with the level of professionalism and formality that will go into the “real” presentation, even if you find yourself talking to just your BFF and your Schnauzer.

Make sure your test audience members ask you questions so you can practice your responses. They should at least read questions off your anticipated list. If they’re super people, they might come up with a few tricky ones on their own. Keep a pen handy and jot down any insights, tweaks, or “gotcha” questions that come out of your run-through.

Bear in mind that the rehearsal’s primary value lies in help you shake any newness or weirdness off giving your talk. Any constructive feedback you get from your test audience just provides an excellent bonus. So don’t worry if you don’t live with or know expert critics. The quality of your test audience’s suggestions won’t make or break your presentation.

Go through your talk from start to finish at least once. I like to rehearse my talk at least twice for my test audience, but I leave it to your judgment whether to repeat the presentation–talk length and test audience patience varies.

Combine Policies

You can use any one policy, combination of two policies, or all three policies as you like. Perhaps you memorized most of your talk cold, and you’ll just hold a few bullet cards for the slides you haven’t gotten to memorize. Or maybe you only need a few run-throughs to feel ready. Perhaps you want a mix of trigger cards and bullet cards to support you through your entire talk. Or maybe a run-through showed you’ll just need a few trigger cards for the slides with which you feel least comfortable. There is no wrong way to work through these methods.

Present with Confidence to Get Heard

pink batman
Nailed it!

When you take out an Insurance Policy on your talk, your confidence rises. In fact, that’s the whole point–to build your confidence and comfort with your presentation so you’ll feel your best during your talk. And once you know what you want to say, you just have to make sure your audience actually hears your message.

Most successful communication is non-verbalStudies have shown that the words you say make up only 7% of your message to your audience. How you sound provides nearly 40% of your impact, and how you look (things like facial expressions, gestures, posture, and overall appearance) delivers a whopping 50%+ of what your audience takes away from your talk.

Now that you’ve memorized and reinforced your talk, you know you’ve got that critical first 7% down. In addition, since your confidence has grown, the next 40% (vocal element) will be on your side. So how do you control the 50%+ of your message that relies on how you and your presentation look?

We’ll get into that in the next post, when we cover “day-before” preparations. Take care of a few important details the day before your talk, and both you and your presentation will be ready to show just as well as tell.