It’s fine, we’ll get you through this, provided you have:
- 3 weeks to prep
- Software with a “speaker notes” feature
- An external faux-projector screen to practice with
This article is not a joke. It’s not intended as exaggeration or satire. I’m personally horrified of public speaking and I’ve given 50 some-odd tech-talks and it’s never gotten better. I’m not going to insult your intelligence with un-actionable tips about relaxing and pretending this or that about the audience. I’m going to give you my workflow.
These are instructions. These are things you can DO. Hope is not a strategy. Don’t skip steps, and commit yourself to this. Follow through, and your talk will be great, and you will do great.
Step 1. Daydream about the talk until 3 weeks prior
Seriously. Don’t open your slide software; just fantasize every once in a while about you giving a talk. You’ll find that related “things” will present themselves, like good opening jokes, clever one-liners, occurrences in the news, anecdotes, tweets, or cat gifs that relate to your point. Remain open to these and jot them down or save them for later.
Step 2. Write an essay
3 weeks before the talk, write your talk out in essay form. If you despise essays, call it a monologue, or a report. Use punctuation and sentence structure. Treat it like a report on your topic that’s due in a week. Target 3000 words for a 45-minute talk, or 2000 words for a 30-minute talk.
Step 3. Paste your essay into speaker notes
Once you’re happy with your essay, but before the end of week 1, chop your essay into speaker-notes sized pieces and paste them into speaker notes. Leave the slides themselves blank for now (use your preferred slide background color or whatever, but no content). The rule is, with your laptop in display mode connected to the external display, and with speaker-notes enabled on the speaker-screen, you MAY NOT SCROLL THE SPEAKER NOTES WINDOW. Use only the amount of text that will naturally fit in the space of the speaker notes box with no scrolling. You’ll find you can fit a medium-sized paragraph in there.
Step 4. Backfill Graphics
Use the speaker-notes as a guide to your slide transitions. Try to populate every slide you’ve created with a graphic or a small combination of words that illustrate the point you’re currently making in the speaker notes. It’s ok to use the same graphic for 3 slides (this will appear to the audience that you aren’t changing slides when in fact you are), but NO MORE THAN 3 slides. If you have to rework bits of your essay to make the graphics fit better that’s a good thing. Do that. Keep tweaking until the end of Week 2.
Step 5. Practice
1 week before the talk, begin performing run-throughs to yourself. You need not be standing or projecting loudly. You can sit at your desk with your laptop and display, reading the speaker notes to yourself at a mumble (it must be out loud though). Move your lips. Practice inflection.
Jokes, bits, and gags may occur to you, rework your notes to include them (even if it breaks the 3 slides per graphic rule). Certain sections may seem difficult or awkward, delete them, they’re probably overly-detailed, and not necessary to your point.
Step 6. Repeat Step 5
Step 7. Repeat Step 5
Step 8. Repeat Step 5
Step 9. Repeat Step 5
Step 10. Repeat Step 5
Notice the timer in your slide software, and begin timing yourself. Your talk might be over time or exactly matching your time limit. In either of these cases, delete 8–10 slides. Pick the most boring ones. Be brutal and honest. If you’re coming in with 7–10 minutes to spare, you’re in the zone. (Yes. Your talk will take 10 minutes longer when you eventually give it at the podium. Yes, this is a hard law of physics. No, I have no idea why)
Step 11. Repeat Step 10
Step 12. Repeat Step 10
Step 13. Repeat Step 10
Step 14. Repeat Step 10
Step 15. Dress Rehearsal
At this point, you’ve performed 10 run-throughs of your talk. For a 45 minute talk, you’ve been reciting it verbally for 7 full hours. Your transitions and inflection should feel natural and practiced. You need to be done tweaking it now. It’s not going to get any better, but it might get worse. Now it’s time to stand up and project.
Don’t worry about posture or eye contact with the crowd. Forget the crowd, you aren’t going to be paying attention to them at all. You’re going to be at the podium reciting your speaking notes, not walking around waving your arms like a TED speaker. Yes, you’re going to be eyes-down, reading aloud to your audience. I know it doesn’t sound conventionally correct, but believe me, it works really well.
If you have someone you love and trust, have them sit in with you as you give your talk. Don’t listen to any of their physical advice about how you’re standing or the fact that you’re reading aloud, but do listen for anything they didn’t comprehend, or jokes they didn’t think were funny. Make minor adjustments to account for these if they feel correct to you.
Step 16. Repeat step 15
Step 17. Repeat step 15
Step 18. Repeat step 15
Step 19. Chill
1 day (if possible) before your talk, put it down, and don’t look at it before you’re ready to go up to the podium. Take this time to reflect on the fact that you’ve already given this talk 15 times to assure yourself that it’s going to be fine. Allow yourself to believe it, because it’s true.
Step 20. Give the talk.
Stick to your notes. Bring water to the podium. Drink some when you feel unable to speak. Everybody wants you to succeed, which is exactly what you’re doing. When it’s over, drop the mic and run. Get outside and let the sun hit your face. Plant your feet and allow yourself to take a compliment. Respond with lies like “Thanks I really had a blast”. You nailed it. I knew you could.