“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
“Why not seize the pleasure at once? — How often is happiness destroyed by preparation, foolish preparation!”
Jane Austen, Emma
So, who’s right – Benjamin Franklin or Jane Austen? The subversive in me is tempted to answer: “There’s only one way to find out…Fight!” – in the style of the wonderfully silly TV comedian Harry Hill.
But it’s a serious question and one I’m asked all the time. I’ll do my best to give a fairly comprehensive and useful answer. And, not surprisingly, both of these two wise writers have expressed part of the truth.
Why prepare? Why might it be better not to?
So let’s start by looking at the reasons why it’s a good idea to prepare for an act public speaking or presentation. They are (from my perspective as a speaker) so that:
- Your ideas are thought through and coherent.
- Your talk has a good structure that is easy for listeners to follow.
- You’ve identified any places where you need to do extra research or find evidence.
- You’ve found the places where you might want to create visuals to help your audience understand.
- You’ve anticipated any weak spots in your argument and thought about how you would deal with these.
- You’ve thought about who your audience are, what their needs are and how to craft your talk in such a way that they get their needs met for (a) engagement, (b) clarity, (c) knowledge and answers, (d) entertainment and variety.
- You know that enough of your talk is committed to memory or paper so that you feel secure that you won’t be lost for words.
So there are lots of good reasons to prepare your talk. From this perspective Ben is 100% correct. And we can boil them down to preparing in order that:
- The audience gets what they want and need, so feel engaged and satisfied
- You as a speaker feel safe and secure that you’ll be able to deliver it.
And I’m sure at this stage you already know that there are some downsides to preparation. From my perspective they are:
- Your talk can feel lifeless to the audience.
- It can feel like it’s “written” and you’re just reading the audience an article you wrote.
- You are not engaged with what you’re saying.
- You can’t make eye contact with your audience (if you’ve written your speech and not learned it).
- There’s no room to improvise or be creative.
We can boil this down again. The advantages of a talk being less prepared are:
- You can create something fresh, exciting both you and your audience
- There’s a sense of being “in it together” between you and them
- You have access to spontaneity, creativity and fun.
And from this perspective Jane is absolutely correct. If we over-prepare, we squeeze all the life and pleasure out of a talk.
So the trite answer to the question is that you should prepare just enough that you feel safe knowing you’ve done your homework, but not so much that you’re held in a straightjacket and you can’t improvise.
So given that we’ve established that you really need to do something, but you shouldn’t do everything, this raises the next question – what should I prepare?
What should I prepare?
I’m going to start off by telling you what I think you shouldn’t prepare. And that’s the precise words you’re going to say.
If you write yourself a script you kill your chances of freshness and spontaneity. It takes a great actor to take a pre-written script and make it sound fresh – and even then it’s a performance – it isn’t fresh, they’re just pretending. Is that the relationship that you want with your audience?
If you were telling your friends at the pub/bar/coffee shop the story of how you got a bargain at the sales last week/scored the winning goal at the football match/went on holiday to somewhere fabulous last year would you script it? Of course not. (At least I hope so). Would you need to script it? Of course not. You were there. You know what happened. You just start the story at the beginning and let it flow. And because you’re excited and you know this stuff it comes out naturally and engagingly. You find yourself adjusting what you say in harmony with your audience’s responses and it becomes a shared experience.
A public speaking act should be just the same. Hopefully you’re speaking about something you know something about – presumably that’s why you’re the one speaking about it! If that’s not the case then that brings us to the first thing to prepare:
Make sure you’ve really done enough of your homework on the subject matter so that you really do know what you’re talking about.
And then trust that the right words will find themselves. Once you’ve done that you need to:
Know who you’re talking to and what they want.
Find out who’s in the audience, what their level of knowledge of the subject is, what their expectations and prejudices are.
Put yourself in the shoes of (a) your most difficult audience member and (b) your average audience member.
Ask yourself – what do they want to hear? What do they need to hear? How do they need to hear it? What don’t they want to hear? What’s the one point you absolutely believe in that you’d really like them to take away?
What sort of energy or attitude would you like to have in your presentation? Do you want to be confrontational, conciliatory, funny, super-serious, human, authoritative?
Once you’ve done that you’re ready to do the next stage of your preparation.
An audience does need to be able to navigate their way through a speech. So it’s great to:
Prepare a structure for your talk
A classic structure would be:
- Open with something personal that grabs their attention (personal stories relevant to the talk are good)
- Tell them what the talk is about
- Name three main points
- Elaborate on the three main points
- Summarise the three main points
- Find an entertaining or emotionally powerful way to close the talk – preferably that references how you started the talk (as this is emotionally satisfying).
This is a slightly upgraded version of the 3Ts – (i) Tell them what you’re going to tell them, (i) Tell them and then (iii) Tell them what you’ve told them.
This is far from the only solid structure for a talk, but it’s a great place to start for many talks. From here it’s useful to:
Know how you’re going to start and how you’re going to end
This is a good exception to the improvisation rule. An audience can be won or lost in the first 30 seconds, so it’s worth knowing more or less exactly what you’re going to say in this first period of time.
Similarly it’s great to leave the audience in a way that’s considered and deliberate, and it also gives you a target to aim for, for the rest of the talk, so it’s worth having this scripted or at least semi-scripted. (You can always alter it during the talk if you need to).
Then you’re ready to:
Create any visuals that you need
Ask yourself – do I absolutely need visuals? Remember, when the audience are looking at your slides they’re not looking at you (they’re reading the slides), so avoid slides with too many words on them – you will often be able to get away with slides with no words at all, or even (dare I say it) have no slides at all.
Then it’s time to:
Reduce it all to bullet points
You can have your opening and closing word for word if you like (see above) but the rest should just be bullet points short enough to trigger your memory as to what you need to say and the order you need to say it in. Some people like to have the bullets on tiny cue cards, small enough to fit in the palm of their hand, but there are lots of different ways to do this. The less information you have written down, the more space there is for your creativity, so don’t overdo it.
Finally, you’re ready to:
Run it through – and find your attitude.
Practice your talk – ideally to camera (most phones have one now) to get a feel for delivering it, for what you like, what you don’t like, pacing length etc. If it’s an important talk you might like to show your run through to a trusted friend, family member or colleague. Remember to choose someone who will be both (a) supportive and (b) realistic. You don’t want someone who will tear it to shreds (especially if you haven’t got long enough to rewrite it) nor do you want someone who won’t point out an obvious flaw. It’s even better if the person concerned knows the audience to whom you’re presenting, so they can comment on how well it’s going to meet their needs.
Remember the sort of energy or attitude you wanted to have in your talk (see stage 3 above). If that sort of energy doesn’t come naturally to you, can you imagine “channelling” a little of someone famous who has that sort of energy or attitude – The Dalai Llama for calm, playful wisdom, Winston Churchill for rousing stoicism, Martin Luther King for ground-breaking inspiration. You could have 2 or 3 of these characters “with” you for inspiration. You can even imagine them standing behind you cheering you on. (If you’d like to read more about this method for inspiration check out Wendy Palmer and her wonderful book on Leadership Embodiment ).
Don’t run your talk through too many times. In most cases once or twice will be enough. You want it to remain fresh for your audience and for you too.
The above points cover just about any talk or speech you might need to give. Obviously, the lower the stakes the more of these stages you can abridge or skip. I really hope they help you in preparing your next talk, presentation or speech.
And as always, I appreciate your comments ideas and suggestions. Please do let me know your thoughts and experiences in the box below.