(5m reading time)

Public speaking is one of the top self-reported fears worldwide. I started off scared, too. Here’s how I learned to successfully cope with and even enjoy it.

Rain-on-Thassos

To quote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Into each life some rain must fall.” I like to extend that verse to:

Into each career some public speaking must fall.

Into some careers, a lot. I’m quickly learning that product marketing is one of those lucky careers.

Few are born innately loving public speaking, and much has been written about addressing the anxieties and phobias of performance. I have spent a fair amount of time on-stage, and I still get the jitters. I’ve put together this five-part series to cover some techniques which have served me well. This first part focuses on delivery preparation. Future parts will address memorization techniques, rehearsal techniqueslast-minute preparations, and setting yourself up for success on the day of your talk–right up to the moment you take the stage.

I’m not going to talk in this post about creating your content or writing a winning slide deck. If you’re interested in more information about creating a compelling, modern presentation, please check out Nancy Duarte’s digital-format book resonate: present visual stories that transform audiences. I am going to focus on what happens after you’ve got your content put together–how do you prepare yourself to deliver it to your audience?

Play the Memory Game

Obama_healthcare_speech_draft
President Obama edits his speech on health care.

Beyond putting together a slide deck, I write out all the things I want to say to the audience while I’m showing my slides. For me, a presentation is just a speech with pretty pictures. Not everyone approaches public speaking this way, and it can be overkill for subject matter you know very well or for very short, simple talks. In my mind, however: for challenging talks or intimidating venues the written speech, the script, is king.

So the story starts after you’ve put together your slide deck and you’ve written out your script. I like to think of my script as a voice-over track. The big challenge for me is uploading that track to my head so I can own it and deliver it confidently on the day of the presentation. There’s is a lot of different advice out there regarding how to effectively memorize text, and I’m sure that everyone has their own thing that works for them best. Here are some activities that I like doing.

Don’t Dismiss Auditory Learning

The very first thing I do once I’ve got my script finalized is make a recording of myself reciting it. (The folks at wikiHow turned me on to this approach.) I convert this recording to the appropriate file format and put it in my music playlist. As an iPhone user, I use the “Voice Memos” app on my phone to record myself and then use iTunes on my computer to convert the file to mp3 format. I promise this is easier than it sounds, and there is helpful advice online that will walk you through the steps.

The first time I listen to this recording, I pretend I’m an audience member. (This suggestion came from Udemy.) I sit down with a pen and notepad, pull up my slide deck, and page through the slides as I listen to myself give the presentation. I listen actively and take notes, and I try to come up with as many questions as I can. Hey, maybe I can stump the speaker!

After the speech is over I type up my list of questions. I then work on researching and writing out good answers to these questions as the date of my presentation gets closer.

This approach helps me hear potential problems with my content or delivery (unintended emphasis, something that could be misinterpreted, etc.). It also does wonders to help me anticipate and prepare for possible questions. Trust me, don’t skip this step!

Then I listen to this voice-track on repeat as much as I can stand it. I put on my headphones and listen while I’m doing other things in the days until my talk. Sometimes I focus on what I’m hearing and sometimes I don’t. I figure there’s got to be some subconscious echoic learning going on while I’m plugged in–you’re hearing your own voice saying something to you over and over again. It works for advertisers, right?

Here are some times when I plug in:

  • While brushing my teeth in the morning and at night
  • When I go to bed at night
    • I make a point to turn the voice-track on low volume and set a sleep timer to stop it after an hour or two. Instructions are available for setting a sleep timer with an iPhone.
  • While cleaning up around the house
  • While writing emails or doing relatively low-voltage work on the computer
  • While riding in the car (by myself, of course)
  • While walking
  • While riding public transit
  • While knitting or doing some other passive hobby

This will get you off to a strong start, even if you don’t consider yourself an auditory learner. I’m a visual learner myself, but I believe in multi-pronged approaches, so I try to engage with the material in multiple ways. Let’s get the next sense involved.

Succeed with Visual Learning

At this point I break my script down slide by slide. I put the text that goes with each slide on a separate page, and I title that page with the slide’s title or main point (e.g., MAIN CHALLENGES, PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER, INTRODUCTION, etc.). Update: No visuals? Break your speech into chunks that make sense to you–by topic, for example. Aim to get each chunk to fit easily onto a single, standard-sized page. 

Then I print those pages out. I usually print them on thick paper (like card-stock) so they’ll stand up to the handling they’re going to get while I work on memorizing them.

Caslon-schriftmusterblatt
A typesetting specimen sheet from the 1728. This is what my speech starts to look like to me, especially after I break it up into separate pages.

Now I have a bunch of pages of text, all of which intimidate me to some degree. I put them in order of how hard I think they’ll be for me to remember. Things that are tough for me are:

  • really long pages (That’s a lot of talking for one slide!)
  • text that doesn’t have visual cues on the corresponding slide (Uh, what was I supposed to say here?)
  • text that covers knowledge areas with which I’m not super-comfortable normally

I put the hardest slide on top and the easiest slide on the bottom of the stack.

So at this point I’m looking at a stack of papers I want to memorize, prioritized by importance. I call this stack my “prep pages.” I start to relax, because now if (godforbid) I run out of time to properly memorize each and every slide, I know that I will have tackled the hardest ones first. It’s not the end of the world if you wing it through a short introduction or transition slide, but you can kill your talk by fumbling on a critical point or information-dense area.

What to do next with this stack of sorted papers? Memorize them, of course! How? Stay tuned for the next installment!