Public Speaking – How I Prepare Every Time


(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 (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.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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

    • Although there are people that really do fear public speaking more than death ( they are in the minority. Most people simply experience some anxiety just before or at the start of the presentation.

      I know that many people are familiar with the Seinfeld’s “rather be in the casket than give a eulogy” joke –but that statistic was taken from a survey that asked people, “What are you afraid of?” It just means that public speaking came to the mind of respondents more often than death–mostly I would suppose because we experience public speaking more than death!

      Oh…if you have an interest in learning more about public speaking or effective communication in general I write on those topics.


  1. Hey Tim,
    I cracked up when I read your comment about drinking a diet coke just before speaking, but remembering to pee first! Ha, nice :)

    Do you drink coffee in the normal course of your day? I was wondering if that would make a difference, and possibly detract from the reason to drink the coke in the first place.

    Thanks for the great blog Tim!


  2. Thanks Tim for this useful post, very important topic to deliver ideas as sometimes between two persons with the same ideas, the presentation makes the difference.

    A thing I found very important for me is to memorize the starting of every part … maybe just a sentence or two, but you better learn it, because changing the part of the speech requires your brain to come back to memory, and you have to be fast enough in that moment.


  3. Tim,

    Great stuff, I’m giving a presentation on nutrition to my hometown high school next week, definitely will work through your process.

    BTW, random Tim Ferriss sighting of the week, watched a video of a Crossfit Endurance certification on the Crossfit Journal website yesterday. Halfway through I see your mug. If that wasn’t you, then you have a twin somewhere in Colorado.



  4. I’ve done a lot of public speaking… a lot… and I think your advice is great. Honestly, the more you speak in public the easier it becomes (although some people would disagree with me).

    Whenever I give a speech, I typically
    1. Break down the time frame and the general structure (as you showed)
    2. Make a brief outline to remind myself what I want to talk about
    3. If it’s really important, I will write out the speech word for word and read and re-read it over and over again so it’s fluid. I usually break it into smaller parts and connect the strings together… and if you first break your speech down and analyze it well, this makes it 10x easier.
    4. Bring my old chemistry goggles to the speech to protect myself from flying rotten tomatoes if things get too out of hand… but so far I haven’t needed them.

    Honestly Tim, great post. Thanks again.


  5. Oh, and I forgot to mention, sometimes I do better if I don’t pee before. In a weird sort of way having take a leak and forcing it back is a great way to get your mind off the crowd and keep your energy focused on your speech.


  6. Great post Tim!

    This past year I have gotten into the public speaking world and your ideas will definitely help out in the future. The major concept I’ve learned thus far is to have confidence in your presentation. If the audience thoroughly believes what you are telling them, all the other stuff falls into place. And they take away a great experience.

    Thanks again!


  7. Awesome post – first question especially relevant to freelancers… I like the idea of clients who have less budget than free time…

    Focus on the few clients who have more money than free time = recipe for success (learnt the hard way)


  8. I’ve always prided myself on being a great writer (at least other tell me so), but have always been a bit shy about speaking. This post was VERY encouraging. You make it seem extremely easy. I’ve spoken publicly in the past, but never had such a simple way of structuring it. I know I can write good, actionable content. That’s my job… haha! Thank you for laying out how to turn that into a great speaking presentation.


  9. Great advice thanks. I think elements of this process would be good not just for public speaking but for structuring any written thoughts as a ‘mini-thesis’ or blog post in order to clarify thoughts or processes.

    Looking forward to the new book Tim :)


  10. I liked your article a lot. I also do a lot of presentations and as such I typically tend to also drink Coke before the start of the presentation. I do agree with you that if you are confident in your voice and poise whenever you deliver the message and you show that you really care about what you are speaking about, your audience would listen carefully as well.


  11. Hi Tim,

    I really like your break down for public speaking, I can’t wait to try it.

    I have a question for you. I have noticed in this post you state that you eat a light protein-rich breakfast (no bread), and in your other posts you have said you do this for cognitive performance. Why do you not eat carbohydrates in the morning? Or do I have to wait for your next book to find out?



  12. Some things to remember.

    1) A Keynote talk and a Presentation are 2 very different things. Most people confuse the two. A keynote is mostly an entertaining/inspiring/motivational talk. A presentation is meant to teach mostly. So your structure is more for a presentation than a keynote.
    (btw a keynote is actually derived from the entertainment world and the presentation has its roots in the teaching world.)

    2) Stories should be used liberally throughout any presentation. It allows each person to take something out of the talk, because they’ll interpret the stories meaning at a personal level.

    3) If the average person uses the structure you’ve outlined (it works well for you because you have a ‘celebrity’ type status) they’ll have good success – but it won’t necessarily be memorable. Story/anecdotes/case study is critical.

    Great outline for a successful structure though…


  13. Thanks for this Tim! Simple yet effective ways of doing things are definitely beneficial to me.

    I like the 10 min segments broken up. I’ve been pretty curious about this lately and have only been doing 15-20 min presentations throughout college however I’ve been asked to do speaking on Social Media and Internet Marketing for some local businesses in the Buffalo, NY area. This definitely will help me out

    Thanks dude!


  14. Agreed on the great post. Always used caffeine for workouts, never thought about it for public speaking, I’ve gotta give that a try!

    It’s great to see the different ways people prepare for a speech, so thanks for sharing that. do you do a Q&A like Gary V!


  15. For me, the most important thing was practice. Back when I was 22, my employer of the moment required that I go through a 14 week (1 night/week for 4 hours) Dale Carnegie public speaking course. It’s all about repetition. After all those weeks giving little 90 to 180 second talks to 20 other people even more terrified than me (btw, it’s the terror of all those eyes focused on you that makes it so awful), I could walk up to the podium, be given a slip of paper with one word on it, and on the spot make up an interesting (if formula driven) talk on that one word. It will make you feel powerful. I think the Toastmasters does something similar for free.

    As I’ve grown older, public speaking just gets easier and easier. Rules I have learned:
    1. Never write it down and especially never read your speech.
    2. Know your subject. You should have all necessary facts and concepts on the tip of your tongue. Dale Carnegie would say, “You have to have earned the right to talk about your subject.”
    3. PowerPoint presentations are usually AWFUL. When I use powerpoint, I make the background a pretty field of wildflowers and no more than 3 bullet points per slide. I then use each of the bullets to kick-off my next little 3 to 5 minute speech. If you have to use a graph or a table, and you want anyone but you to actually understand it, you need to leave it up for at least 5 minutes and you must slowly walk through what it’s supposed to represent. You should even describe the units being used on the X & the Y axis.
    4. Make yourself talk slowly. You’re going to be totally wired with tunnel vision. Remind yourself to take deep breaths, stop, smile and slow yourself down.
    5. You will lose track of time. That’s part of the tunnel vision. I now set my iphone on the podium with that giant timer running so I don’t spend too long talking about my first few points.
    6. All those eyes starring a hole in you is disconcerting to say the least. Pick 2 people, one front right, the other left rear and just alternate talking to them. The rest of the people just disappear.

    After about 50 times, the whole process is so easy you’ll be totally relaxed. Unfortunately, public speaking is another one of those things you’ve got to practice to get good at…damnit !

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Tim, great post. I really enjoy public speaking and try to emulate some aspects of your delivery which comes accross as calm, almost conversational and is really engaging. Ok, two things that help me prepare –

    1. Bourne Identity night before presentation to chill out (something about the music / pace of that film that makes it an ultimate stress-buster!!)
    2. In the car on the morning of the presentation I put some motivational music on…something like the Rocky soundtrack, and preferably sing it too. With Aviator shades on for added fun.

    Love the book Tim, looking forward to the next one. Cheers, Mike