Preparing for a public talk

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Preparing for a public talk


Now, this is something I’ve wanted to share with you all for ages. That is because I’m going to confide in you, I find giving public talks absolutely terrifying. Have done for my whole career. What I’ve done for 20 years now is I’ve read books on it, I’ve had coaching, I’ve been on various training courses. If I go to a conference, I’m absolutely sure to nab the speakers afterwards and get various tips from them. What I’m going to share with you now is essentially a very personal story of 20 years of consistent practise and refinement in how I prepare to give either a forefront or a public talk.

Now, a couple of words of warning. You’re going to think I’m absolutely insane. This is, as I say, it’s a very personal thing. This is about how I prepare and it’s seriously incredible amounts of hard work and there’s a lot of quirks to how I do it. It’s not, the second word of warning for everyone, I think presenting is something you learn from experience. It’s not something you can take from this talk or from a book. What your job is today is essentially to take the nuggets that are applicable for yourself from what I share with you and then be brave, put yourself forward, give some talks, learn from every single experience that you have and then consistently analyse, review and refine your approach to how you prepare to give a public talk.

Now, the one thing I would say just to add some credibility to this talk is I know that this way works. I know that because I’ve given about 10 out of the last 14 forefronts. I’ve stopped on one occasion in all of those times because somebody dropped a drink in the audience. I know this way works.

What makes a good public speaker?

Before we get into the teeth of it, I just wanted to share with you a couple of barriers and essential pieces of bullshit that I think stops people reaching their ultimate level of performance. When you see somebody like Chris Philpot give a public talk when he’s up here doing a forefront, what do you say to one another after he’s finished his talk?

Nailed it, what else might you say about him.

So many people say he’s a natural or, the worst of all, it comes easily to him. I think that’s offensive. I really do, because the so-called “naturals”, they’re the ones that put the work in. I can prove this.

This is Steve Jobs before one of his first ever television interviews. This is him backstage.

[Video plays]

That’s Steve Jobs. He’s ready to throw up. He went on to give a pretty appalling performance on one of what was one of his first ever public appearances, but as we all know, he went on to become one of the most gifted and inspirational public orators. That’s purely down to the fact that Steve Jobs knew that it took 500 miles. You’ll understand the resonance of 500 miles a little later on in this talk, but here’s an insight into how much work Steve Jobs put in, taken from a couple of chaps interviewed by Fast Company. They talk about the fact that he wasn’t preparing and rehearsing days out, weeks out, he was into it months ahead. He would then go on and obsess about every tiny little element of the kind of stagecraft, the lighting. They described it as “exhausting” just watching him prepare. Then, weeks in advance, he would take lines from what he wanted to say because he would script the whole thing and he would take line and he would be bouncing them off of journalists just to make sure that his talk resonated with the audience that he was going to invite. That’s the level of effort that Steve Jobs went into to become, from this chap who was going to throw up before his first talk to somebody that we now laud as one of the most inspirational public speakers of our times. He knew it took 500 miles.

How to apply the 500 miles

That’s why I’ve underscored preparing for a public talk. If you want to understand performance, we, business people, we’re the wrong people to ask. Business people will talk to you about performance. Let’s be clear, performance is the moment you’re stood here giving a public talk. We talk in business terms about things like strategy, about KPIs, but to understand performance, who you really need to speak to are sports people. Sports people prepare their entire lives for sometimes, a performance that lasts ten seconds. If you ask a sports person about their job, they will explain to you that 95% of it is nutrition, mentality, sleep and training. The day that they go to perform, the day that they give their public speech, that’s the day they take that massive cheque, all of that training, all of that hard work and they cash it in and they get their medal. That is fundamentally why my session is entirely about the preparation for a public talk and not the actual providing of it, which there is plenty of material out there for you to go and research. It’s essentially about the 500 miles. Your 500 miles begins with the content itself.

Now, the minute I’m booked for even a forefront, let alone a public talk externally, I’m literally obsessed by the very notion of it. I’m obsessed by the talk. It infects me. That’s because I believe in the power of your subconscious mind. I believe your subconscious is the creative powerhouse in your mind. I’ve seen your conscious mind described as the press office that simply signs off the ideas that the most powerful part of your mind, your subconscious comes up with.

The minute I’m booked, I’m carrying that thought around with me constantly. What happens is, I’ll be in a one-to-one with one of you guys, I’ll be sat opposite a client, I could be asleep, I could be in the gym and that idea for that talk, it comes. The minute it comes, I get out my daybook as you can see here and I put the title, the working title for that talk in the back of the book on an empty page and I ring it. Essentially, this is where the whole thing will start from.

Finding your point of view

Now, the important thing to remember when your idea comes, it doesn’t have to be original. It just needs to be valuable for the audience that you’re sharing the talk with. It also should conjure up a feeling within you like you’ve got to get this thing off your chest, because if it doesn’t, if you don’t have a point of view, if you don’t have passion for it, then the character as you give that talk will not come through and it will be a bland performance.

Now, once I’ve done this, essentially, I carry around that daybook with me wherever I go. Again, my daybook is acting as this metaphor for this talk. I’m obsessed by it. It’s coming with me everywhere in my mind and physically in my daybook. Because of this, again, I could be in any environment, but I start to come up with other ideas for things that I want to include in a talk. I’m not forcing this now. I’m not sat down in a controlled environment. Little ideas come to me from time to time, not in a chronological fashion. As you can see, I stick these little extra ideas about the things that I want to talk about during my talk and I map that out.

Putting this into practice

Now, once I feel like I’ve got a robust volume of content, I move it to a more formal approach. You don’t think that looks formal, but this is me now, usually working with A3. I’ll sit at the high tables or somewhere, I’ll book a room and I start to transmit the content that was in my daybook across to the A3. What I’m doing here, is I’m starting to give a chronological order to each of the subjects that I want to talk about. I’m thinking as I do this about the Segways, “How can I link one section to the other?” I’m simultaneously thinking about the artwork. I’ll put little asterisks at the top of each one. You can see the artwork here, for instance, I’m deciding well ahead of it what I might put on my PowerPoint slides. More importantly, what I start to do is I’d start to create little bullet points underneath each of my subject matters of the types of things I’m going to say. It’s these bullets that allow you to go on and start building out a script.

I know many of you are going to start thinking, “No way. A script is not for me. A script is too confined. It makes me incredibly nervous because it means that when I’m up there I can’t be agile. I don’t have freedom.” I’m just going to put it out there. I don’t buy that at all. I know that scripting is much harder work and I know that scripting will get you the results. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be agile, it’s just going to mean you know your stuff.

Review your work

Now, once I’m happy with my script in terms of handwritten, I literally get my daybook and I hand-write my script, I then take it to the next level and I type it up. At this point, I’m starting to abbreviate it. All the time, I’m constantly editing it, constantly thinking about the Segways, “How can I make this better?” You’re thinking now, “Blimey, this is a lot of work. When do I get to rehearse? Sod this.” This is your revision, cast your mind back to your GCSEs, your A levels or, if you went to university, what studying was like then. You’ve put it in your daybook, you’ve moved it to A3, you’ve written it. You’ve written the whole script and now you’ve typed it up and you’re abbreviating it, ready to put it in the presenter view on your PowerPoint document or whatever app you so choose. This means then when you do come to rehearse, you’re going to really surprise yourself. You’re going to know your content so damn well that nothing will throw you off. You’re going to start to feel very powerful about that talk and your ability to deliver it.

Now, I’ve got this. Now, I’ve got my script. I take it everywhere with me. You think I’m joking. This typed-out script, I take this, I take this on the train, I put it in the car, it’s on my desk, it’s everywhere I go. It’s the same thing continuing, I’m constantly preparing. It’s all about the 500 miles. If I’m stuck in traffic, that script is next to me in my passenger seat and I pick it up and I’m again, I’m at it, reading it, editing it, thinking about it, being conscious of it.

Your script is done. Now, you can move onto the deck. You’ve already abbreviated it, so it’s literally just pasting it into the presenter view in terms of the text.

Putting together the presentation

Now, I always do the content, the scripting, I always do that before I do the deck. It’s really simple. If I stand here today and give you the slickest deck you’ve ever seen and the crappiest talk, you’re going to leave incredibly underwhelmed. Whereas, if I give you an average deck, but a brilliant talk, you’re going to feel like you took great value from it. I believe a deck can be done in a few hours, but a talk can take you a few weeks. Always, always do it with the content first.

In terms of PowerPoints or any deck, I’ve really just got a few points for you. These are three slides that I’ve included in recent presentations. They’ve essentially got a couple of things in common with them that I advise you to adhere to. First up, there are no words or very few. You must have seen presenters where you go there and they literally stand there looking at the bullets as they come down, reading them out to you. For me, I feel offended if I’m in that audience. I genuinely do. The speaker is there to add value. If the speaker is not going to do that, if the speaker is just going to tell me what’s on that slide deck, then I may as well not have turned up. He can zip it, or she can zip it up on a PDF and ping it over to me on email. They’re adding no value. There’s no extra narrative there.

Secondly, there’s no eye stock. It’s just me having a bit of fun with it. You can sense my character, a sense of individualism about it. Be brave. Be yourself and have some fun with it. It’s important that you come across that there’s a feeling of authenticity as you present.

Practice, practice, practice

Now, you’ve got your deck. You’ve got your notes in the presenter view. You’re ready now for your rehearsals. Now, the reason I call it “rehearsals” is again, I see this as a performance. It’s all about the performance. I take the Johnny Wilkinson approach to rehearsals.

Staying on the sports tip, Johnny Wilkinson changed the game of world rugby. It’s never been the same ever since. That’s because, if a team was playing England, they knew that if they gave away a penalty in our half, that they would concede three points. He made it an art form or like a science form, I should say. Give away a penalty, Johnny stuck it between the posts. He did this because he knew about rehearsals. He used to stay at his club and at international level when everybody went in and showered, he would stay outside and he would stand in front of the posts. He had to kick 10 goals over consecutively. If got then, 10 over, he’d move to one of the touchlines and he had to kick 10 over consecutively from there. Now, to be clear, if he misses the 15th, he goes back to the beginning and the middle. Then, when he’d got 20 over, he’d go to the other touchline and have to kick 10 over from there. Until he got 30 kicks over in a row, he wasn’t allowed to go and shower. It’s that approach to practising that I believe it delivers performance. It’s essentially again about the 500 miles.

This is how I take the Johnny Wilkinson school of goal kicking into practising ahead of a public talk. In short, I start with slide one. Remember, I know my content now. I’ve done it so many times. I should be able to open my laptop, book a room and start rehearsing. A key point here, I never rehearse in my mind. Don’t sit at your desk and try that. It’s an utter waste of time. Do it in method. Get a room. Don’t be embarrassed that people are walking past and you’re talking to yourself. When you get home, pester your boyfriend, husband, wife, whatever and present to them, even if they’re watching TV while you do it, just start to desensitise yourself, always practising method.

Now, I essentially start with the first slide. If I ace that first slide, then I go straight into the second. If I ace the second, I go straight into the third, but at some point, inevitability, because it’s the first time I’ve done it, I’m going to mess up. The minute I mess up, I have a look at that slide, say it’s the second slide, I revisit my notes and I go back to the first. I then do the first, crunch through the second and that’s how it works. What it means is by the time I come to stand here, I’ve rehearsed the first slide, let’s say 70 times and I’ve rehearsed that final slide just 7. There’s a damn good reason for that. It’s to do with the way that your mind starts to work during a presentation. It’s much, much, much more important that you practise that first quarter or third of the presentation when you’re in the kind of “poo yourself” moment, that bit where the chimp inside your mind, that inner monologue is going crazy telling you’re going to screw it up, when your palms are sweaty, when you can’t actually think about your script.

That’s the bit if you’ve done the way that I practise if you do that, what will happen is you will know your narrative so damn well that nothing can shake you. That first part is all about building confidence. You start on a footing where you know it so well, you’ll rattle off those first few slides and then as you come into that bit where you feel like a rockstar, it’s main relief. Your heart rate starts to dissipate and you start to feel relieved, at which point you celebrate your own success and you become a bit cockier on stage. You don’t need to actually practise that middle part as much. Certainly, when you get towards the end where it’s very frustrating, but you see people, they love the sound of their own voice a bit too much and they drag it on and you think, “That was a really good talk until I nearly fell asleep at the end”, it’s really important that this last part as well, I do actually practise the final slide quite a few times because you try and imagine your presentation as a nice packaged box. When you’re tying the bow on top, you need to package it up nicely, draw the circle fully and round it off nicely so it feels like a very polished performance.

But, to be clear, I have one metric on this. I’m not allowed to consider it done until two things happen: I’m totally and utterly fed up with practising, I’m so completely bored that I want to cry and secondly, until I’ve done this ten times without fail, without any error, if I presented it ten times without any errors, I consider myself ready. They’re my two rules.

Now, when you’re rehearsing, I advise you to use every single tool in the book. Use your phone in terms of voice recording. The voice memos will give you a couple of really good things. First up, very simple, “Am I going on too long? Am I within the confines of the slot that I’m booked for?” Secondly, it’ll allow you to listen back to yourself and understand your intonation and tone. Are you varying your speed? Are you varying your pitch to make sure that you wake your audience up every now and then?

Secondly, on your phone, video yourself. It’s amazing what video does. If you watch it and speed it up just a little bit, you’ll see yourself and you’ll see your ticks. You’ll see that you tap your foot a lot or that you do this loads. You’ll pick up everything. Remember, this is a performance, so get into that. You know your content by now. It’s all about how you present, how you project yourself.

The other part, I’ve referenced it a minute ago, but desensitise yourself. Present to everybody around you, whether it’s friends that you’ve got over, if they can stomach it, certainly your loved ones at home. If you can get a group of colleagues together, then do it. Don’t ask me why I put this video in, but essentially, you’re always editing. I don’t know why that makes my mind think editing, but you’re always editing.

This whole process here, you’re looking for a reaction. The first part, you’re asking yourself, “What’s my pitch and tone and speed like? What do I look like? How am I projecting? What are my ticks?” Then, you’re taking it to people physically and you’re asking them, like Steve Jobs did, “How are my lines? Do they resonate with my audience? How do people feel about it?” You’re constantly editing it the whole way.

Again, you’re probably thinking, “Sod this. This is way too much hard work. It’s exhausting.” It is, but I promise you, if you reference the kind of sports person’s performance mentality, it’s all about the inputs. That’s what’s going to deliver the output.

Before presenting

Now, if you’ve done everything that I’ve said so far, congratulations because you’ve done the 95%. It’s now, the day when you rock up and you get the pat on the back from everyone, you get the applause and you celebrate your success, you get your medal, but there are a few things you can do to even, just at this late, late stage, make sure you give the optimal version of yourself as you’re preparing to talk.

It’s race day, it’s the morning. There’s a couple of things I think you can do here. Firstly, cardiovascular exercise. It burns cortisol. It suppresses your adrenal gland. Trust me, when you’re stood up here, it’s going to take the edge off. Extreme cardiovascular exercise will make you calmer. Do a run in the morning.

The other thing and this is such a simple trick that people miss, some of us blush on our collar as we present because we get worked up and we get hotter. I see this happen and we’ll probably see it today. That person then is aware, because I’ve felt it before, they go, “Oh my God, I’m blushing on my collar. Oh, my God, I’m nervous. Oh, my God, I’ve forgotten what I’m saying.” Wear the right stuff. If you’re a guy and when you do this, you can see big sweat patches, that makes you nervous, wear something under. Wear a higher collar. Do all these little tricks you can do to make sure that your mind is right for when you present.

You’ve done your 500 miles. You’re prepped. You’ve done your run. You look great. You’re wearing the appropriate stuff. Guess what? Your nerves want to take it away. That makes me so livid I can’t tell you. You’ve put in all this work and your mind is there saying, “What if I screw this up? God, I feel nervous”. It’s trying to rob you of your hard work. I use anger at this moment, I get genuinely upset that my nerves are trying to take that good work away. I’ve got a couple of tricks that I use to help myself.

First up, you’ve got to control your inner monologue. Your inner monologue is not going to try and help you out. It’s going to say, “I’ve got sweaty palms. I’m nervous. Oh God, I’m up next. What if I screw this up?” That’s not helpful. You’ve got to think differently. That pressure you’re feeling is excellent. You’ve worked your whole career to put yourself in that position of a little bit of pressure to share something meaningful with an audience. You should celebrate that. That’s a pat on the back to you that you’ve done it and that you’ve put yourself in that position.

Additional tips

The other thing is, reading this book will help. Dr Steve Peters, The Chimp Paradox. Steve Peters worked with Team Sky in terms of cycling, worked with Liverpool Football Club. Very, very good at that element. He calls it “controlling your chimp”. It’s essentially controlling your inner monologue and working with essentially the positive bits and discarding the negative.

Secondly, you might think this is crazy, no, I didn’t write this book, write yourself a mantra. Mine is 500 miles. 500 miles refers to the amount of training you might do for a marathon. To me, it’s insinuating that I’ve done all the hard work, today is race day, I go and get my medal. Around that, I write a whole list of other achievements I’ve done in my life. What I’m doing here, and you’ll see it if you’ve sat close to me during a forefront when I’m preparing to get up, I actually write all this down in my daybook. I’m saying to myself, “You’ve done the hard work, you’ve done many, many bigger things than this. This doesn’t matter. This isn’t a big deal.” What you’re doing is you’re giving yourself a sense of perspective, a sense of achievement, a sense of worth. By repeating that mantra, you’re controlling that chimp. It will mean that you get up there and you deliver a stronger performance.

The other little thing you can do is just control the things you can control. Deal with the “what-ifs”. This is my little list for today: “Have I got my clicker? Did I have it on a backup USB? Have I got my water down there? Do I have my Smints?” Great trick by the way. No one can see you’re eating them and it keeps your mouth nice and moist throughout the talk. Deal with the “what-ifs”. That’ll mean that you have an element of calm about you.

Another little trick for you is treading the boards. Get there early. If you’re in the first session, go and get on the stage while everyone is in the coffee break and stand in that position. When you give your talk, that should never be the first time you’ve stood in that position. It will shock you. You watch, a few of you now are going to get up here and stand here before forefront starts, but you must get up there and slightly desensitise yourself and visualise yourself giving that talk. It will help you. If you’re an afternoon speaker, then get up there during the lunch break.

A couple of other tips while you’re in that environment as well. Asking a question of another speaker can help desensitise you to hearing your voice in that environment and being seen by everybody to be a personality in that arena. Also, meeting as many people in the breakout sessions can really help you as well. It helps you connect the audience and it helps, they become inquisitive about you and your talk. You’ll share lots of stuff with them and you’ll start to build up an awful lot of confidence.

Time to present

The moment has come, you’re stood here, you’re about to give your public talk. Your heart is racing, the chimp is trying to totally screw it up for you. You’ve got to focus at this point on just two very, very simple things.

First up, take a lesson from war journalists. Every single war journalist gets the same 101 training no matter where they go in the world. If they are caught in a line of fire or a bomb goes off, what happens is, they tend to react straight away. Their training tells them, “Don’t do that. Take three deep breaths no matter what’s going on.” Because what happens is, if you don’t in that instance, you starve your brain of oxygen. It makes a poor decision and you may well run into a line of fire. It’s amazing. I know it’s crazy to speak about war conflict and public speaking, but honestly, the adrenaline people feel you can see it. They stand up and they just start talking. Just take a moment. No one cares. Stand there. Take your two or three deep breaths. Have some water. Have a Smint. What I like to do is feel roots growing out of my feet into the boards beneath me, feel strength, power, feel ready and then, most importantly, set off in the right direction.

I’ve seen some of the most gifted public speakers out there say something they’re not meant to say at the beginning of a talk. It throws you. It doesn’t matter how good you are. It will throw you completely. You’ll start getting nervous. I’ve seen many of us do it. I’ve been there, where you’re in front of a client, let’s say, and all your mind is doing as you rattle on is thinking, “Oh my God, how do I get back to what I’m meant to say?” Take that moment when you’re having your deep breath to remember your first couple of lines and set off on the train tracks you designed. It’s absolutely fundamental to giving a good performance.

Your talk is done. Enjoy it. Get the pat on the back. Have the applause. Congratulate yourself. Go and have a beer, but at some point, please, take five. Analyse how you performed. Analyse how you prepared. Analyse your emotions throughout the whole thing and make sure that you’re constantly, no matter how good you get it, you’re constantly seeking incremental improvement and change.


Then, one final part. Just make sure you take that talk and you add it to your mantra. It’s another list. It’s another thing. It’s another achievement. It’s another thing that will help you for the very next time you get up and talk.

That’s it. Thanks for reading.