Public Speaking: How I Prepare

Think about the situation. Your boss at work has just asked you to do a presentation at next week’s meeting about a key milestone the company has just achieved. At this stage most people will do one of two things:

  1. Instantly open up PowerPoint and start dumping information onto slides
  2. Write out a script on paper and try to memorise it word for word

What’s lacking most in both scenarios is audience engagement. Let’s be honest here. Both strategies are inefficient ways to deliver a speech, and are highly likely to result in a presentation that will bore your audience to sleep.

So what is the alternative?

Public Speaking: How I Prepare

In this post I outline the general flow that I follow when preparing for a presentation:

  1. Create an outline
  2. Develop the content
  3. Rehearse
  4. Add vocal variety
  5. Emphasise visual communication
  6. Create supporting slides

1) Create an Outline

My initial preparation for any speech begins by defining a target audience and selecting a suitable topic. As a starting point, if you don’t know what your audience need from your presentation, it will be very hard to keep them engaged. I ask myself:

  • Who are they?
  • Why are they going to be in attendance?
  • How can I frame my presentation in a way that benefits them directly?
  • What things are they unlikely to want to hear?

Knowing my target audience is just one factor when choosing a topic. The other big consideration is knowledge. If I don’t understand the topic inside out it will be very hard to deliver an engaging presentation because I will be focused instead on trying to remember the information. Before I go any further I will ensure that I have a full understanding of my audience and chosen topic.

The next step is to create an outline. The basic structure of an effective speech consists of an introduction, body and conclusion. Similarly, the basic logic of an effective speech goes along the lines of:

Tell them what you’re going to say, tell them, tell them what you’ve said.

Combining the structural and logical elements results in the following speech outline:

  1. Introduction — establish topic and message; outline supporting points
  2. Body — consisting of supporting points 1, 2 and 3
  3. Conclusion — recap supporting points; summarise message; call-to-action

In short, I assume my presentation will be delivered in five parts: approximately 2-minutes for an introduction, three middle segments, and a 2-minute conclusion.

2) Develop the Content

Once I’ve defined my audience, decided on a topic and given some thought to the outline or structure, next I brainstorm a couple of ideas for the 3 main points.

  1. Sitting down with a blank piece of paper I write my chosen topic at the top
  2. I then write down three (or less) subheadings. The subheadings are the points that support my topic
  3. Next I write down a few words for each subheading (this is the brainstorming phase)
  4. Finally I conduct some research on each of these points (this is called the proof of concept)

You will notice that I haven’t went anywhere near PowerPoint at this stage.

3) Rehearse

For the next part of my preparation I take a copy of my outline and begin practicing the presentation based on that outline. Essentially I am rehearsing without having planned a script so that I am able to “talk” about the presentation material rather than “recite” it.

I will rehearse as if the audience is sitting right there in front of me. As I continue to rehearse I begin to rely on my speech outline less and less. Here are some of the elements of my practice:

  • (Where possible) I re-create the speech setting by practicing where I’ll be speaking
  • I time the delivery, video or audio record and take notes after the practice
  • (Where possible) I practice with an audience… even if it’s not my target audience
  • I solicit feedback from others, asking for honest opinion and ways to improve

4) Add Vocal Variety

As I rehearse my presentation I consider the tone I’m using for delivery and try to add elements of pace, pitch, power and pause to enhance my speech.

  • Pace is simply the rate of speech. The most common ways of varying pace are to speed up or slow down
  • Pitch is the frequency of sound emitted. A simple way to hit different pitch points is to play with emotions
  • Power is essentially volume. Power and pitch go hand in hand
  • Pauses are used to emphasise key sections and/or points in the speech

5) Emphasise Visual Communication

As I become better at delivering the content of my presentation, visual communication begins to play an increasingly important role. The most important elements of visual communication I tend to focus on are eye contact and gestures.

In terms of communicating a message, after the voice, eyes are the most powerful speaking tool. When speaking to a group, eyes function as a control device. Simply by looking at people, you have an influence on their alertness and concentration. Making effective eye contact means focusing on individual audience members and creating relationships with them. Here is the technique I use:

  1. I observe the selection of people scattered throughout the room
  2. I search for people who are responding. The best people are the ones smiling, nodding or just “getting it”
  3. Focusing initially on one person, I talk to him or her personally, treating it like a one-on-one conversation
  4. I hold that person’s eyes long enough to establish a bond – perhaps three to five seconds, or the time required to say a sentence or share one thought
  5. Then I shift my gaze to another person. And repeat…

A gesture is defined as a movement of the body that is expressive of an idea, opinion, or emotion. For example there are many ways of using arms, hands and facial expressions to highlight a core message. By being expressive with gestures I find that it gives me a boost of energy during a speech.

The most important rule for gestures is “be natural”. To be most effective, I try to ensure that any gestures I make are above the elbow and away from the body. Some examples of gestures include:

  1. Lifting both hands outwards with the palms up
  2. Raising the arm and one outstretched finger into the air
  3. Clenching of one or both fists
  4. One or two hands placed on the hip
  5. Wrinkling of the face, eyes, nose

6) Create Supporting Slides

When it comes to designing the slides to support my speech, I don’t jump straight into PowerPoint. Instead, keeping my computer out of sight for a moment, I turn to another blank sheet of paper and draw a series of boxes, each representing a slide (credit to my friend and fellow blogger Dave Mac for this approach).

I then start running my rehearsed presentation through in my mind. Whenever I get to a point in my presentation that I feel is something I need to emphasise, I write a word that represents that point in a new box. Then I review each of the boxes and consider the word I’ve written in each box. I ask myself, what is the best way to emphasise the point? A picture? A single word? A sentence? A graph? I will decide what I think works best and sketch it into the box.

Only now that I’ve created a simple outline on paper I will turn to PowerPoint and start designing my slides. Please refer to my detailed two-part series about designing effective visual aids.

Final Words

Now that I’ve shared my approach for preparing for a speech or presentation, I’ll end this blog post with some parting words of wisdom from best selling author, keynote speaker and all round genius Tim Ferriss:

If you’ve done the above, you’ve prepared more than most speakers. If you’re getting chased by a lion, you don’t need to run faster than the lion, just the people running with you. Speaking with other people is similar: you don’t need to be perfect, you just need to be better than a few others, and you’ve already built in insurance with good actionable content. It’s your bedrock. As long as you can keep your time, you’ll rock!

Now get out there and speak!