It’s been a busy week for travel and presentations, first in the UK and now in the US. When I was younger, it was hard for me to give public speeches. My mind was on the audience, I was self conscious, I worried that I didn’t have anything worthwhile to say. Clenched muscles, shaking hands, and quavering delivery was the sorry result: my best prop was a podium to clutch.
Over time, I learned to organize material while teaching community college, and I watched how my directors presented and connected with their audiences. Business school focused on the pitch: how to capture and persuade an audience.
Today, I really look forward to talking with a group. I never get butterflies; I keep a good pace and make better eye contact. I still make mistakes, but (I hope) I’ve also gotten better at learning from them. And a lot of that success depends on the preparation work, the thinking and organizing that distinguishes timid talks from engaging ones.
Broadly, I first think about whether I am lecturing or pitching. A lecture is a journey from common ground to unfamiliar frontiers; I always identify where we start together and what (limited) new knowledge I want to leave them with. In contrast, a pitch builds a more emotional case, still facts and data, but traveling from a shared problem to a consensual solution.
Then I set my subconscious to work. A talk on remote medical monitoring is really about how can a physician keep track of hundreds of patients scattered across a city. I get associated insight everywhere: looking at Facebook, where I am keeping track of dozens of friends scattered across the country, or reading how computers at CERN distinguish significant events from meaningless ones. I scribble it all into a notebook.
I storyboard my notes to define the talk, using big flip-chart pages to collate my notes, then cutting them up to arrange thoughts by progression or affinity. It’s a mess, but reveals the major themes that I want to share.
Time constraints define the structure: A half-hour talk allows about 25 slides. I take a blank sheet and segment out a storyline: 5 slides for the introduction, 6 each for three major topics…the storyboard migrates onto the storyline. In formal lectures, I expand the storyline into an outline of lecture notes.
I simply transcribe these topics into slides to create my first draft,getting thoughts composed clearly and topics into the right order. Each slide forms a paragraph: a logical unit of thought flowing into the narrative ahead and behind.
Once the story is complete, I challenge myself to take a third of the material out, editing, focusing, tightening. There’s often too much background, or excess detail where the point isn’t being made. In the end, I want a strong narrative flow to carry both me and my audience.
Finally, I fix the visuals, adding illustrations, ensuring that the font and headings are consistent, making the text blocks visually interesting. I like the Fast Fade transitions between slides, but rarely use animations except to introduce sequences of pictures.
And a final review by a friend catches any last spelling errors and obscurities.
When my talk arrives, I own the topic. I’m excited about the ideas, the points are clear in my mind, so there’s no need to read from the slides and I can get engaged with the audience..
Disasters still happen: I included some borrowed slides in a talk this week and got lost trying to present them. There was nothing to do but declare a break, rip out all of the offending slides, and then make the top level points without any presentation materials. I kicked myself hard: I know better.
But when the session moderator cut my pitch on the fly yesterday, asking that I skip ahead to a particular topic of interest, I could adapt. I knew my material: nod, Slide 24 please, and we were off without missing a beat. That’s how I like to be able to do it.