My 4 Step Plan For Giving a Talk

  1. Prepare.
  2. Show up.
  3. Start talking.
  4. Hide.
four sheep
Credit: DeviantArt / B0mbadil

Prepare

This is the easiest bit. I can spend as much time as I want here. The goal: a strong narrative that weaves together my key points (most of the work). Attractive, minimalist slides that illustrate them (much less work). Knowing what I’m going to say, and being able to speak fluently about the sections. I wrote more about this here.

Show Up

This is logistics, what to wear, how to get there, when to arrive. But also, everything I do to keep me from panicking and makes sure I show up mentally present.

Two day conference, and I’m speaking on the second day. On the first day, there are some great talks, which I alternate between appreciating, and panicking that they are signs that I shouldn’t be there, that I have nothing to offer, that this was all a mistake. I go for a walk. I miss two talks that I would like to see, but I am dramatically calmer as a result so have no regrets.

At another event, I miss my friend’s keynote so that I don’t have to deal with rush hour traffic.

I make time to swim the night before, and to wake up naturally. I eat breakfast. I hide away for at least 30 minutes, preferably an hour, before I speak.

Start Talking

In some ways, the easiest bit. At this point, I am committed – there is no way I’m going to be this guy.

This is the point where I have to be 100% committed to what I’m saying. I can fit in contextual remarks, allude to earlier talks, but the salient points were set long ago. They are happening.

Typically, I keep a script with me, and follow it closely, but hopefully people can’t tell. It’s helpful not just from a “this is what I’m saying” perspective, but also because it forces me to pause. Look down, check, look up, speak. It’s harder to do this when I’m super nervous – pauses are a sign of confidence. Being able to take a real breath, live with the seconds of silence that seem to last forever.

Hide

I’m an ambivert, which means a lot of people think I’m extraverted, but they don’t see me when I’m hiding. After a talk? I need to hide.

This is where I high tail it to a quiet place, as soon as possible. I smile politely, thank people for kind remarks. All recent talks, I was on a panel soon after, I made time for a brief moment of mental quiet. And then when I can get away, I do. Ideally to spend the evening at home alone – I find that immediately after a talk I’m really hungry (probably related to nerves killing my appetite before one), and then really exhausted. I go with that.

I eventually try and respond to all tweets, but not necessarily immediately, I also collect them in Storify [1, 2, 3], which is really helpful to show that a talk was well received and engaging. I might want to hear the talk following mine, but I’ll invariably miss it either physically or mentally – I’m just too overwhelmed afterwards, I can tell my heart is still racing, and I’m frantically checking twitter to see what people are saying (it’s nerve wracking to do this when I’m coming on stage again, I might get some much-needed confidence, or I might be crushed. So far this year, it’s been the good result).

Being alone afterwards for me is a key part of the process. It’s how I rebase, re-equilibriate. I plan it in, in the same way that I plan how to get there.

I used to worry that some of these actions would make me seem stand-offish. I’ve let that go. Everyone agrees that speaking is terrifying, and yes people might want you to go to the pub afterwards, or show up to their talk. But it’s better for everyone involved if I show up ready to give a good show. The four step plan? This is what best sets me up for that.

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