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Lose Your Notes

How to sound like an actual human person when giving an important presentation, even if you’re nervous

Illustration by the author

My chosen profession requires me to give speeches, talks, and presentations, but I am not a natural public speaker, so I sometimes wonder why this is the profession I chose. I am inconsistent. Sometimes I feel and sound comfortable. Sometimes I feel and sound stilted, earnest, robotic. It’s even worse now, when every talk I give or meeting I lead is over Zoom.

I thought I’d found a solution for that inconsistency: Just write out what you want to say and, when the time comes, read it — but with feeling. Throw in some ums and ahs to make it seem as if you’re speaking extemporaneously and you just happened to remember a perfect professional anecdote that illustrates the importance of not C5’ing your X-22s (don’t get me started on X-22s!).

The problem of course, is that you sound like a newscaster. Reading your notes creates an uncanny verbal valley. You’ll cover everything you want to cover in precisely the way you want to cover it, but your talk will only be informative, not engaging.

Of course, you can just riff on slides. But this only works if you know your material — really know it.

I think I’ve settled on the right balance of prepared and off-the-cuff. It’s a take on the “measure twice, cut once” rule of carpentry: Rehearse twice, present once.

To be more specific: Rehearse once by reading, rehearse once without notes, present once without notes.

This approach has two important benefits. 1. It will ease, if not eliminate, anxiety. 2. It forces you to engage your material to such a degree that you will actually increase your understanding of the material, and this new understanding will provide a certain energy when you’re delivering your message.

Here’s the process:

A week or so before your talk…

Create your deck

I won’t go through how to create an effective slide presentation. But I will offer up a few general guidelines I use:

  • Fewer words per slide are better than more words.
  • More slides per deck are better than fewer slides.
  • Bulleted lists are better than paragraphs.
  • Colored backgrounds help organize your presentation and orient the viewer.
  • Every word on your slides should be proofread by someone who isn’t you.

In your speaker notes, write out literally everything you want to say (or not say), including asides, jokes, well-placed pauses

You will not use speaker notes during your presentation, but it’s important you use this tool to write the content of your talk. Write everything. For each slide, type up your thoughts as they come to you and then edit them. It doesn’t need to feel too conversational, but it doesn’t need to be perfect. No one will see these notes. They are for you. Err on the side of long-winded here because much of this will never be spoken.

2 days before your talk…

Rehearsal 1: Read your notes while presenting

Run through your presentation and read every word of your speaker notes, checking both for errors and inconsistencies, making adjustments to your notes and slides. (Ideally, you will read them to another person who will give you feedback.)

1 day before your talk…

Rehearsal 2: Do not read your notes while presenting

Run through your presentation without access to speaker notes. Speak slowly. Read every word of your slides to orient your imagined audience (I like to imagine I’m speaking to one of my friends) and to reinforce what you’re saying, and then illuminate the slide by drawing from the content of your speaker notes. But don’t visualize the notes. Draw from the same well of information and experience you drew from when writing your notes. You know this stuff. Just talk about it. You will recall some of your written text. Snippets, entire sentences, key words. You also will forget some of your written text. This is OK. The principle here is: If you forgot it during your talk, it probably wasn’t all that compelling.

And remember one of the most important rules of public speaking: No one has ever missed something they never knew was there. Remember this rule when giving the actual presentation. It should alleviate any pressure you feel to be perfect.

The morning of your talk…

Read through your speaker notes out loud

Re-familiarize yourself with the content of your presentation and let your brain take in your text the same way your audience will: auditorily.

During the presentation…

React to your slides like an actual human person who knows the material very well… because you do

As you did with rehearsal 2, read the text on each slide and intersperse thoughts from your notes and any new thoughts that emerge. Linger on a slide. Linger on a line on a slide. Gesticulate. Smile when you say something particularly revelatory. Take your time. You have a good sense of how fast you need to go. Your brain will start to nudge you forward if you’re lingering a little too long. Lines from your notes will come back to you. Some won’t. You will skip a lot of stuff that you’d prepared. That is fine. The important stuff will bubble up. You will sound comfortable because you are someone in the midst of figuring this stuff out. Your talk will possess an energy that comes from recently discovering new ideas. Your audience will be on the journey with you instead of just listening to you recount it.

I want to repeat what I think is an important rule of presentations (and life in general): No one has ever missed something they never knew was there. It’s fine to leave things out. It’s good to leave things out. The entire point is to leave things out. A great speech always sounds like the speaker has so much more to say. This technique ensures that.

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A publication from Medium on personal development.

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Ross McCammon

Ross McCammon

Author, Works Well With Others: Crucial Skills in Business No One Ever Teaches You // writing weekly about creativity, work, and human behavior, in a useful way

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