You're doing it wrong.
People hate it when someone says, "you're doing it wrong," but trust me... you're doing it wrong when it comes to how you prepare for a public speech. I'm sure this will upset many people, but let's walk through the typical scenario of how someone is asked to speak and what happens next:
- Step 1: someone gets asked to present on a specific topic.
- Step 2: the presenter agrees to present.
- Step 3: the presenter puts it in the back of their mind that they must prepare for this event, but because speaking in public is so nerve-wracking, they put it off for the last possible moment.
- Step 4: in the week leading up to the presentation, the speaker starts writing down notes and building a PowerPoint deck. It could be more severe than this. Sometimes they write up the speech that they are going to read to the audience (please don't do this).
- Step 5: a day or two (but mostly likely, the night before), the speaker runs through the slides and (if they're really keeners) will practice it formally in front of a mirror a few times.
- Step 6: they deliver their presentation to an unsuspecting crowd.
This is, without question, the worst way to ever give a public presentation, and yet this is how the vast majority do it. Why? Because the first time that the speaker is ever going to give this presentation will be the most important time and - possibly - the last time as well. Ultimately, you are taking this material for a test drive when, in fact, that audience is the grand prix. When you are asked to present, the material should already have been road tested, tweaked and perfected (as much as possible). It sounds like a lot of work, doesn't it? Well, that's the point. Most presentations suck because the presenter didn't put in the work. Trust me, as much as you may like U2, you do not want to be there when they first try out a song together for the first time. It takes a lot of work to get that song to the point when it is ready for an album or live show.
This is how to really prepare for a public speech:
- Step 1: someone gets asked to present on a specific topic.
- Step 2: don't agree to speak unless you have enough time to prepare and test the content out live in front of a few real audiences (this can be a simple lunch and learn at your office, joining your local Toastmasters or asking some friends to endure it over some beer and pizza).
- Step 3: don't agree to the topic that is being requested. Let the people who are asking know that you will get back to them in 48 hours with some thoughts on what the topic should be.
- Step 4: spend the next day thinking about what you would like to present and how it will come together. Jot down some simple notes and top line thoughts on the subject.
- Step 5: get confirmation and finalize the speaking topic - to your satisfaction - with the event organizers.
- Step 6: build a plan. Work backwards from the date and create a calendar for when you will prepare your content, rehearse your content, present it to your colleagues and then, ultimately, the event.
- Step 7: build an outline for your presentation. If you have never done this before, check out the work of Nancy Duarte, Nick Morgan and Garr Reynolds. All three of these presentation masters have tons of free content on how to structure a solid presentation.
- Step 8: build your presentation. Have no more than three areas of focus.
- Step 9: enlist some help. If you don't think that your presentation skills are up to snuff, please get some help. Again, Toastmasters is great, a local presentation skills coach or even a local stand-up comedian can best help you massage the content and build proper presentation skills. You will be amazed at what you can learn in just a couple of hours.
- Step 10: rehearse on your own.
- Step 11: rehearse in front of the smaller audiences.
- Step 12: ask them for candid feedback.
- Step 13: integrate the feedback that makes sense.
- Step 14: rehearse in front of another smaller audience.
- Step 15: ask them for candid feedback.
- Step 16: integrate the feedback that makes sense.
- Step 17: ask one of your presentation coaches for their feedback once you have integrated everything from all of your test-run speeches.
- Step 18: integrate your coach's feedback.
- Step 19: practice some more on your own, and watch speakers that you would consider to be great (YouTube is amazing for this). Think about what they're doing that wins you over. Try to integrate those lessons into your own presentations.
- Step 20: step away from the content for a few days.
- Step 21: step back in and keep practicing.
- Step 22: present at the event... and knock 'em alive!
Sounds like a lot of hard work, doesn't it?
It is. The great public speakers make it look easy. It feels like they're presenting the content for the very first time. The truth is that most of them have practiced and road-tested their material for a while. They are constantly nurturing, tweaking and optimizing it. They look comfortable, because they are comfortable and familiar with the content. There may be some content pieces that are brand new, but it is usually an iterative process. Sadly, most presenters are so unprepared that their only goal is to either get to the end of their slides in their allotted time or read their pre-written speech from the podium without wetting their pants. What most presenters fail to realize is that nobody cares about you getting to the end of your slides or if you survived reading a document in public. People are in the audience for two (main reasons):
- To learn.
- To be entertained while learning.
No matter how serious the event is, people don't want to be sitting all day and be bored listening to people reading from slides or reading from their printed out Word document. So, the next time you're asked to present, don't just say "yes," unless you're willing to commit the serious time, effort and energy to do it right. Why? Because if you don't take it seriously, you're just perpetuating a world where all of us have to endure another slew of painful meetings and presentations.
Who wants that?