You have a major speech or presentation to give. Rehearse it carefully! Practise! You have to make a good impression on the day!

Wait …

Rehearse? Practise?

In 2010 I gave a TEDx presentation in Krakow on the Physics of Diplomacy. Afterwards someone asked me how often I rehearsed such presentations. She was startled when I said that not only did I not rehearse; I could not imagine how anyone could rehearse. Would orating mightily to oneself in front of the bathroom mirror really help?

The audience wants to listen to you being yourself on the day as best you can, not to someone pretending to be you, or to you pretending to be someone else.

A successful speech is not an exercise in acting – it’s an exercise in communicating. Watch some acclaimed TED talks. Try to spot where the speaker is putting on a tightly rehearsed performance: acting, instead of talking to the audience.

I’m now a hardened public speaking pro. Many people feel queasy at the thought of getting up in front of even a small crowd. The answer to that is some quiet public speaking coaching to master the basics and help work up good content, but not to rehearse in a mechanical sense…

Above all, you need to know what you are going to say and be confident in the substance and message of the speech or presentation. Rehearsing in this sense – mastering strong content and thinking hard about how to deliver it to best effect – is essential. You want to be confident in your content, and you want the audience to hear your confidence.

Thus the Plight of the Speechwriter. The words are written to be spoken, but a written pre-prepared speech is by its very definition not a conversation. The more a speech is scripted, the less space the speaker has for spontaneity on the day.

That’s from Speeches for Leaders.

Look at this example from Sarah Kay, known for her ‘spoken word poetry’. It has had nearly five million views on YouTube:

Maybe I’m missing something, but this is hard work. She’s engaging, smart and loves words. Yet after the first couple of minutes I want to escape and hide.  I have no idea what she’s talking about. I don’t care.

It all seems (at least as watched on YouTube) far too ‘prepared’. A performance, not a conversation with the audience. No clear unifying idea. It’s all about her, not about her relationship with the audience.

The start is especially weak. I think that she’s trying to be funny by making some sort of jokes about Point B and the back of her hand, but no-one laughs. It’s a big audience. She’s talking much too fast. Too many notes!

Watch instead Leymah Gbowee give a wonderful example of how to start a TED talk. Measured. Strong. Silence! She grabs control of the room and doesn’t lose it.

How exactly does she achieve that?

It’s great to use stories in speeches/presentations. Only you know your story. You don’t need to script it.

BUT the problem with not scripting it is that in the heat of the moment you can add too much detail.

Never mind all that. You’re clogging things up. If you want to practise something, practise telling a couple of your best stories in 30 seconds or so (60 words approximately). Strip out every surplus word to get to the bare bones of it:

What happened?

What did I do?

What did I learn?

Note especially how Leymah Gbowee here tells the opening story in exactly such a pared down – and therefore powerful – way.

She doesn’t say something like “Let me take you back to 1998 and tell you a story” or even “It was 1998“.

She simply says “1998.” A one-word sentence if anyone wants to try to grammarise this talk.

Boom. Straight into it. Not a word wasted. Everyone ‘hears’ right from the outset that this speaker is serious. Her speech means something.

* * * * *

Let’s say you have to prepare a speech or presentation. I’d divide the time available thusly:

20% mulling over the audience, event, room, sequence on the day, other speakers etc. What’s going on here? Where do I fit in? What’s expected? How to stand out? What smart risks might I take? What just won’t work in this setting? Details!

30% working out what you want the audience to understand, remember and feel, and how to get that across. What Big Idea or thematic motif/metaphors might convey that? What are the key structural intellectual tensions in the speech? What’s the right tone

10% pinning down how to start/finish strongly

30% pulling together the speaking-notes/slides/objects

10% thinking about how to deliver it powerfully on the day. What pace do I need, given the size of the room/audience? Where are the key pauses and signposts? When to use silence? How to keep an eye on the time? 

Confidence through Content.

All of which said, there’s nothing to be lost by doing a bit of practice of some key passages in front of your iPad camera (and/or a merciless coach) and then watching how it looks. Maybe you have some inadvertent speech mannerisms, such as lifting your voice at the end of each sentence? How’s your eye-contact? Are you looking around the room to engage everyone, or keeping weirdly focused on one part of it?

And, as if by magic, along comes Orai to help you practise the pace and energy of your speaking voice. And to help you weed out ‘fillers’ (you know, like, um, er)

Orai is a super, prize-winning voice recognition app that lets you talk into your phone and record short speech passages on different themes. It then uses scarily clever algorithms to analyse how you’re doing and give you handy specific tips on what to improve.

And be warned. There’s a lot more to come as the app develops. Check it out.

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Far too many so-called public speaking experts start at the wrong end, namely the delivery on the day. It has to be confident! Wear the right shoes. Do knee-bends! Adopt a power stance!

I say that all that’s fine blah blah. But it’s not the key thing.

Start with the content itself.

Why are you there? What do you have to say to this audience today that’s new or provocative or thoughtful or unexpected? How are you going to convey those ideas in words? How to structure the argument? What Big Idea pulls it all together?

If you don’t know all that, why are you wasting the audience’s time? An empty box with a beautiful ribbon round it is just an empty box.

Confidence through Content.