Public Speaking – How I Prepare Every Time

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(Photo: Tim Wagner)

In the past several weeks, I’ve been asked quite a lot about public speaking.

While downing gin tonics over Brazilian BBQ at the SXSW Interactive tech conference, I was approached by the CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) of a start-up I advise.

She pulled me aside to ask primarily two questions:

1. Where can I learn about the right social media tools to use?
2. What books should I read to learn how to get good at public speaking?

Here were my answers….

1. Where can I learn about the right social media tools to use? (Note: she has an extensive marketing background outside of social media)

Answer: Don’t worry about it.

If you know how to 1) craft a clear and short benefit message to your ideal 1000 customers (read Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 True Fans, the only marketing article you’ll ever need to read), 2) secure and highlight testimonials and case studies, 3) offer a simple trial option to big enterprises (but charge them – no free rides or they won’t value it), and 4) offer awesome customer service to the customers who matter (not becoming consumed by squeaky wheels with more free time than budget) just use the skills you have and view social media, primarily Twitter and Facebook, as communication channels. Nothing new, and you don’t need to respond to every comment/criticism, just like in personal life.

2. What books should I read to learn how to get good at public speaking?

Answer: I don’t know, but I can show you in less than 5 minutes how I do it.

Here was my answer on one sheet of paper:


How I prepare for all public speaking – sketched out at SXSW for a start-up CMO.

Truth be told, I don’t think I’m that good at public speaking. Tons of speakers crush me in presentation, poise, and general lack of F-bombs. Granted, I was born and raised on Long Island, but the smooth delivery doesn’t seem to be a natural skill. Here are the ground rules I developed for myself to compensate, and I’ve been able to jam with some fun audiences as a result (paragraph 5 here), including the EG/TED, fancy schools, Fortune 100 big ‘uns, CIA/NSA, and tech gigs:

1) I won’t focus on being a “public speaker”. I’ll focus on being a teacher from the stage. What I might lack in delivery, I’ll make up for with actionable takeaways.

2) It’s fine (oftentimes good) if some people dislike you or disagree with you, but no one should misunderstand you. Everything you say should be clear.

3) It’s totally fine if you get nervous and stammer a bit, drop F-bombs where needed, or generally feel like a nervous wreck. If you give good actionable, clear advice, people will forgive it all.

4) Have fun and laugh at yourself whenever possible. Beating the audience to the punch makes it much less fun for them to slam you.

5) Have one 16-oz. Diet Coke 45 minutes prior to speaking and another about 20 minutes prior to speaking. Pee before getting on stage or you will look like a squirmy kid at a spelling bee. Yes, Diet Coke will give you hairy palms and insomnia, but this caffeine dosing has proven perfect for me for taking the stage. Could be as much placebo effect as anything else.

Those basics out of the way, here are my explanations of the paper summary above:

1) If the format is a 60-minute keynote, a typical format, then I automatically build in at least 20 minutes of audience Q&A, which I usually make 30 minutes. This reduces my presentation time to 30-35 minutes and allows me to tailor the presentation to the group (via answering their questions) instead of guessing what is most important to them and delivering as a pure monologue.

2) I assume my presentation will be in five parts: approximately 2-minute introduction, three 10-minute segments, and a 2-minute close. I use this “rule of thirds” for the three segments whether the presentation is 60 minutes or 10 minutes.

3) I then plan the content in this order:

10-minute segments – For each segment, what is the main takeaway or usable action for the audience? This means I have three main points in this talk, no more. To flesh out to 10 minutes in length, I then use a PEP (point-example-point) format or, my preference, EPE (example-point-example) format. PEP means you illustrate the concept, then give an example or case study, then reiterate the concept and actionable next step. EPE means you give an example or case study, then explain the concept, then finish with another case study or example. I sketch out 2-3 EPE or PEP for each 10-minute segment, and all of this is done on 1/4 to 1/2 a piece of paper.

Introduction – Now that I have a better idea of my content, I decide on the introduction, preferably starting with a story and then explaining that I’ll introduce three concepts that will help them do “X”, where “X” is whatever the overarching theme of the presentation is.

Unless you are a comedian or have already tested jokes with audiences who don’t know you, do NOT use rehearsed jokes. If a joke falls flat in your intro, it will ruin the experience for you and your audience.

4) Now the harder work and the fun of discovery – rehearsal:

The PEP/EPE is usually sketched out well in advance, and the rehearsal is done the night before the presentation.

I rehearse the intro, segment 1, segment 2, and segment 3, all separately. I’ll repeat the two-minute intro — winging it — until I nail it. I use a kitchen timer on countdown, and each time I finish, I write down any one-liners or wording that I like. Note that I NEVER memorize a speech verbatim, but I do ensure that I have memorized the starting and closing 2-3 sentences for each portion (intro, segments) at this point.

How many times will I repeat each segment? Until I’m happy. I am a perfectionist, so for certain presentations, this could be up to 10 times.

5) Once I have these parts in order, I then wing the close (not before), and repeat like the other portions until I’m happy. For me, it’s not productive to work on the closing statements or questions until I have the rest of the content polished and ready to rock.

6) Now link them all together and do the whole thing until you nail it at least once. Expect you’ll forget about 10% of your memorized lines or anecdotes, and that’s OK, but review your notes each time to ensure you’re hitting the most important points. Once you’ve blazed through it well once, go to bed.

One additional tip: I came to realize long ago that I can barely sleep the night before presentations; it doesn’t matter how many times I do them. So… expect that you won’t sleep and don’t let that add to the stress of the experience. Just get extra sleep the two nights before and plan on an all-nighter. If you get sleep, it’ll be a pleasant surprise instead of a source of panic.

Back to our story:

At this point, you should put your head on your pillow confident. REM sleep cycles will make your delivery smoother. This is why I always rehearse just before bed with no drinks, dinners, or conversations in between.

The next morning, I go for a 20-30 minute brisk walk after a light protein-rich breakfast (no bread). I also avoid caffeine until no more than 1.5 hours before game time, as I found it was too easy otherwise to burn yourself out drinking coffee or tea as a nervous distraction.

Once you’re on deck, just remember: if you’ve done the above, you’ve prepared more than most speakers. If you’re getting chased by a lion, you don’t need to run faster than the lion, just the people running with you. Speaking with other people is similar: you don’t need to be perfect, you just need to be better than a few others, and you’ve already built in insurance with good actionable content. Other presenters too often focus on delivery and forget content; delivery is the first thing to suffer from nerves, but content won’t. It’s your bedrock.

As long as you can keep your time, you’ll f***ing rock it.

Walk up with a smile and knock ‘em dead.

###

Related Videos:
Tim Ferriss: Smash fear, learn anything | Video on TED.com (16:30 in length – the comments are hysterical.)
April 21 – Speaking on panel in NYC at 140 Conference
April 27-29 – Speaking in Amsterdam at The Next Web. Bicycles, Queensday, and much mischief, I suspect…

Posted on: April 11, 2010.

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243 comments on “Public Speaking – How I Prepare Every Time

  1. Great article Tim! I have been looking for an article like this for quite some time now and you have outlined it in an excellent fashion.

    A previous commenter mentioned using visualization exercises and cites Psycho-Cybernetics as a resource. I couldn’t agree with this recommendation more. Psycho-Cybernetics is hands down the best book on personal development and skill mastery that I have ever read. It should be recommended reading for anyone interested in personal development and maximizing efficient learning.

    Like

  2. When chased by lions, the objective is not to out run the slower of the pack, but, rather, to create enough physical obstacles within your path to ensure the lion is occupied as quickly as humanly possible. In this analogy, occupying the lion(s) with those that stumble not only ensures that the slow do not eat you, it ensures the stupid are sacrificed for the larger crowd whom your objective should actually be to save. Humanity is funny. It’s the retarded ones that have already figured it out. Haven’t you seen the moose from happy tree friends?

    Keep up the Randomness. It suites you.

    See ya around,

    Andrew Ator

    Like

  3. Thanks Tim,

    I’m currently locked in the ‘rehearsal’ mode for my first ever business presentation which is in about 17 hours time.The outcome of this could really change everything so naturally my mind is buzzing!! :o)

    I remembered this blog post and after a quick re-read I feel much better about how I have prepared so far and have picked up some more ideas too. Phew!

    It’s nice to know that (as much as I enjoy reading your posts as and when they come out) your posts are like slow-burning carbs, delivering useful information over time, long after the first read!!!

    I didn’t think it was possible but your blog jus’ keeps on giving! :o)

    Like

  4. I just want to say, that I believe your book may have changed my life. I finally feel like I have the tools I need to make both my company and my personal life more successful than ever!

    I am giving you most of the credit, as it was you that coached me, even if it was via print … so … thank you!

    Sincerely,
    Karen

    Like

  5. Hey Tim,

    Awesome tips on public speaking. I laughed hard on your “diet coke” prep advice because the caffeine factor really works! I wish you all the best in all the great adventures you take on — and thank you for sharing all the lessons to us! I love your book and have given them to friends as a gift with the note, “must read!”. Your book has influenced a lot of my decisions about life and the endless possibilities it offers — and has opened so many opportunities that are exciting and rewarding in all aspects. Thank you, Tim!

    Like

  6. Tim,

    Thanks for the speaking outline. I was asking my wife for some ideas on how to outline a talk I want to give and she stumbled across your post. Dude, you’re awesome and I like your swag! You inspired me to just “Do me” and not do things like other people.

    Keep it up!

    Brandon

    Like

  7. Loved this post. I definitely agree about not memorizing. It comes out sounding way too formal and rehearsed. The goal is to connect.

    Once you’re able to connect, and read people’s thoughts just a little, you end up doing far better than reading or chanting the memorized agenda.

    Thanks for sharing!~

    Like

  8. Excellent points Tim. As a child I HATED speaking in front of a class. Now I regularly speak in front of small groups as an instructor and generally have a lot of fun with it. For those that get nervous about it, DON’T. There is no reason to. Follows Tim’s guidelines and have fun with it. Even if you screw up, a little self deprecation usually gets a laugh out of people, sometimes even makes them like you. And, don’t waste the words telling people you’re nervous, instead make it another anecdote or valuable content. It’ll go further.

    Tim, someone above mentioned that you tell people you’re nervous when you speak in front of groups. I’d never noticed that in the videos, but if you do, STOP IT. Have fun (though I doubt I have to tell you, of all people that ;) )

    Like

  9. Read this before I did my presentation in London with Neil Strauss just a few weeks ago.

    Read it again before a presentation in San Diego tomorrow

    and have read it many times before

    Thanks again Tim for the clear, concise, and helpful tips on speaking

    Like

  10. your F bombs let me know your sincere :)

    I dunno if this breaks the rules but check this f bomb (hope someones doing their due diligence and lets this through)

    By the way Tim, you my hero and I need my book signed!!! Both of them!! LOL

    Like

  11. Awesome advice Tim, I especially like the caffeine aid!

    I used to panic so much that I felt sick about public speaking, however with a lot of preparation I actually discovered I had a natural ability to do it very well and now I have got the point where I really enjoy the experience. Anyone no matter how nervous they may think they are can be a great public speaker, just give it a shot, what’s the worst that could happen?

    Glen

    Like

  12. I just decided to joing Toastmasters. I will be attending my first meeting next Wednesday and already I’m nervous about showing up. Don’t know what to expect but I’m going to go for it. Thanks for the advice.

    Like

    • Hi Sergio – Toastmaster is great. I was in Toastmasters for 5 years many years ago, but it helped me to overcome my insane nervousness. The best part about TM in my opinion is Table Topics. You are asked to speak on a topic for a minute or two without any preparation at all. Table Topics is a huge confidence builder. As I mastered this impromptu speaking, I found that I could respond in any meeting or speaker situation with confidence. Good luck to you and great decision!!

      Like

  13. I cannot find the comment from perhaps the one person who asked about the
    Diet Soda…???

    Do you seriously recommend Aspartame?

    Is the jury really out on this still.?

    The reason I ask is there is a TON of negative Potential health effects

    caused by Aspartame, (Diet Coke, not to mention ALL gum now. ??why IDK

    Aspartame is dangerous in my opinion and many other-see some

    one like Dr. Mercola or just search “is Aspartame Poison”

    I also know someone personally who had massive seizures simply

    from drinking Diet Dr. Pepper AND she worked in a Hospital..

    They said it “could” have been related.

    Sorry, guys I seriously thought this was common knowledge,

    but then again I don’t go down the Soda aisle anymore.

    Like

  14. Loved this post. I definitely agree about not memorizing. It comes out sounding way too formal and rehearsed. The goal is to connect.

    Once you’re able to connect, and read people’s thoughts just a little, you end up doing far better than reading or chanting the memorized agenda.

    Thanks for sharing!~

    Like

  15. I just want to say, that I believe your book may have changed my life. I finally feel like I have the tools I need to make both my company and my personal life more successful than ever!

    I am giving you most of the credit, as it was you that coached me, even if it was via print … so … thank you!

    Sincerely,
    Karen

    Like

  16. Just used your method for executing my final year presentation for my degree.

    I NAILED IT!

    Thanks for the post Tim,

    Archie

    Like

  17. This is very educational! Thanks for the post. I really found your hand-written tips helpful. :)

    Whenever I host or do public speaking, I sometimes try coffee, but there are times when it proves too much. Combined with nerves, the kick makes me buckle my words for a few minutes. I’ll try your diet Coke advice! :)

    Like

  18. Hi Tim,

    I’d like all of the tips you’ve suggested and add one more – using eye contact to make a real connection with your audience. In his book Be Heard Now, Lee Glickstein explains how using longer-than-usual eye contact can really help in public speaking, both in making the speaker feel calmer and in building a real relationship with an audience. I currently teach public speaking using this technique and have found it amazingly powerful. Lee’s book is cheaply available on Amazon, or there are more details on my website.

    Like

  19. Tim, I enjoyed your post on Public Speaking, good stuff.

    Can you please do a similar post on the process of how you write a book?

    Especially from the standpoint of deciding what you are going to publish/write about and the process of how you actually get the writing done.

    I saw the video interview that you did with Leo of Zenhabits when you discussed The 4-Hour Chef. You touched on it a little bit. Can you talk a little bit more on the process and techniques that you use to write a book?

    Craig L. Sanders

    P.S. I just started reading 4HWW and am applying the Pareto’s Law in new ways. I am very excited about the results that will manifest. I also plan to buy, read, and apply 4HB and 4HC. I appreciate your candidness and willingness to share your success secrets and little known techniques. I can already tell my life will be transformed in numerous positive ways! I am grateful for you.

    Like

  20. Very good Tim! I am a speaker coach and you nailed several things, especially knowing your introduction by heart. Also, having 3 main points, definitely don’t have more than 3. I blog about these tips and more each week. It’s good to see that I what I teach is what you use. That’s a great confirmation.

    Great speeches of all time (Martin Luther King, JFK, Lincoln, etc.), have only one main point. I think that is interesting.

    Like

  21. Thanks so much Tim. I’m presenting in a couple of days. I will put together skme fun imagery for powerpoint slides. I have an hour speech and glad you said 30 minute Q&A as I was thinking the same. Makes it much less painful for me and the audience since it’s my first speech in business. I am an expert in the subject though so I’m actually excited to talk about it.

    I read Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle and would rather live through my intuitiona and prepare last minute, which means ots much more fresh.

    Fortunately I know the subject so just a case of using slides to stick to time allocated and stay om topic. (internet marketing)

    Thanks again,

    Chris

    Like

  22. It’s natural to have some level of anxiety or nerves before a presentation. I’ve been on stage since I was 15 and that never goes away. I think it really just means that you are alive and normal. Best to treat it like excitement and have fun with it. Diet Coke works for me too.

    Like

  23. Tim,

    Thanks for the great tips and techniques.

    I agree that practice and content are the keys. The presenter should know their material cold and practice, practice, practice. Few can convincingly wing a new presentation.

    Sleeping has always been a problem for me before a speech. Conferences are certainly a challenge, especially if you’re on right after lunch. Learn to channel that adrenaline flow, to keep going. You can relax and have a cold one later in the day, to celebrate your awesome show.

    Keep up the good work.

    Rob

    Like