I’ve spent my life as a public speaker. I’ve spoken to dozens and thousands on a variety of subjects in many different situations. People say I’m pretty good at it. My assessment is that I normally do well. (We all have bad days.) I think it’s mainly because I’ve just done it so much. Like anything, the more you do it the more comfortable you get. People often ask for my advice on public speaking. All great presentations start by asking the right questions. Here are some I almost always ask myself before I get up to speak … and 2 questions I never ask.
1. What would I personally need to hear about this subject to actually take action?
I am the most cynical person I know, so I generally speak to convince myself. Close to this question is thinking about what false assumptions I would have listening to someone else talk about the subject so that I can debunk those assumptions as quickly as possible. For example, if I hear a pastor talking about doubt, I am going to assume he doesn’t really doubt (the way I do) unless she says otherwise.
2. What do people already think they know about the topic that is inaccurate or incomplete?
I think I spend most of my time in any given presentation as a disruptor of common assumptions. Many people think they know all there is to know about a given topic, but I have found there is always a flip side and backstory to everything.
3. What stories can I tell?
I simply believe story works best. If I want to just give people facts or knowledge, I search for a story that does it better that mere information. I aim for no less than 90% of any talk to be in the context of a story.
4. Am I prepared enough? Am I preparing too much?
This one is tricky for me. If I am underprepared, I have found that I can still get my point across, but I will generally talk way too long. Historically, I am at my worst when I am over-prepared though. I find myself talking to the back wall instead of the audience. Since I am a performer, I can start “acting” the part if I am too scripted. For almost all public speakers, I have found that memorizing word for word is even less effective than reading a script (which isn’t normally effective either). I recommend memorizing idea for idea and using no or limited notes.
5. Is there a memorable through-line?
The last thing I do in preparation is take what would be about 2 hours of spoken material (mainly stories) and narrow it down to whatever time I have been given. (These days I can also do this in real time as I speak, but it’s taken a while to get there.) The through-line determines which stories stay and which ones go. Is there a hook or word or idea that I can weave through every story? If so, I go with that and leave the other good ideas on the table for another lecture.
And there are 2 questions I never ask myself:
1. How can I make this funny?
2. Will this make people like me?
Those two questions have never helped me communicate anything important. And not dwelling on them have allowed me to generally be known as funny and likable on stage.
Photo (Flickr CC) by Pete