Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dear Diary, Today I Practiced My Speech (Again!): How One Veteran Presenter Preps

(I have a love of public speaking that borders on the ridiculous. For years, I was a competitive public speaker with Toastmasters International in my leisure time--I guess it was my "sport"--before I ever started teaching. Even though I stand before a classroom all the time as an educator, I deeply respect the art and craft of public speaking, and I strive to keep my muscles strong! That means speaking whenever possible. Students frequently ask me about my practicing strategies, how much, how often, what it looks like. I think students perceive that since speaking comes so easily to me, I must just get up and go. I documented my prep process from an engagement I had several days ago. I hope it will be helpful for every student to see how much time even a seasoned speaker puts into speech prep. Enjoy!) 

August 1, 2011:
It's my birthday. 

My cell phone rings and Beth, my new speaking agent, tells me that my dream of sharing my "Chatty Professor" message is about to come true:

"I have some good news! The Council of Unions and Student Programs (CUSP) wants you as their keynote speaker!"

After digesting her words, I go into audience analysis mode: Who is my audience? Beth said I'd be speaking in front of student leaders from all over the state. A half-hour later, I'd conduct a second presentation for student activity directors/leadership advisers from the various community and technical colleges.

I have a little over a month to prepare the presentations. The big day? September 7. 

August 5 - 7:
I speak with the CUSP organizer for more audience analysis. How many people? Are the students diverse in age? What can I extract from my core communication message to benefit each group? After the conversation, I e-mail my topic plan:

-For the student leaders: 1) How communication excellence in college helps students brand themselves; and 2) Specific interpersonal communication strategies (I called them "words-on" strategies... not "hands-on"... what do you think?) to manage interactions in leadership and group situations.


-For the advisers/directors:  Communication strategies around coaching, delivering feedback, and starting difficult discussions; how directors can model communication for students so they can "say it forward" (I'm on fire with the phrases!).

The organizer tells me I've got it, so I can now begin writing. 

August 8:
I've used the same method of speechcrafting for years: I always write out my full speech as an essay. In this case, I have two speeches to write. With the student version, I face a hiccup: 

Speeches have “color” when we use stories and examples from the audience’s real life. But I’m not a student. I haven’t been a student for a long time now. I need an actual student to help me out--and one who is a leader. I leave placeholders in my text to fill in later.

August 10-12:
I review my word-for-word content, reading it out loud over and over... scrutinizing the sound and combination of the words, the rhythm of the sentences. If I have a slew of long sentences, I won't be able to capture breath easily. I make changes accordingly. 

I am still missing my student examples, but I finalize the text by the 12th. Then, I turn my full manuscript into large-font, key word notes. Here is a Camtasia tutorial I created for Oxford University Press's Understanding Human Communication text that explains the process.

August 10-14:
Vacation ('s all I ever wanted... Vacation... had to get away! I digress...)!

No work on my speech, but I feel good about my head start. I'll start the actual practicing right when I get home.

August 15, 2011
My daughter is in camp and my son is in preschool, so I have ideal practice conditions: I am alone!

I never, ever practice in front of other people. I also don't practice in front of the mirror. (If these tactics work for you, by all means, work them!).

I print out my large-font, key word notes and begin.

Choppy and fumbled best describes my delivery at this stage.

The message never sounds the same from the perfectly constructed version, so this initial practice session is always a difficult transition. However, I'm striving for thought-to-thought, conversational tone--not rehearsed-sounding word-for-word delivery. I want my audience to feel like I'm engaging with them... not talking at them.

I'm not timing myself on this pass. That will come soon. Right now, I have two presentations that I'm verbally clunking my way through.

August 16 - 19:
Kids are still gone during the day, so my practice continues. Now I’m timing myself. Content sounds more fluid, but I'm unable to get a seamless pass-through. 

I struggle to gauge the timeframe due to the massive audience interaction in both presentations. I try to predict how long people take to talk. I nod and say a bunch of “uh huh’s” in response to an invisible audience. 

August 21:
Family is home. I tell my husband I have to go to the store. I sit in the parking lot and talk out the intros of both presentations. I've forgotten one set of notes at home. I consider tattooing them to my forearms.

August 23: 
I tap my Twitter pal, Matthew T. Forrest (@matthewtforrest), a superstar student, social media intern for YouTern (, and PTK president at a Massachusetts community college for some student examples. We schedule our conversation for the next few days.

August 24-26:
Continue practicing both presentations at least once per day, but now I have another deadline: My daughter will be out of camp for 10 days soon and I have a bunch of "life" to do before she's there. Her first day of school is the day of my presentation, so I will not have another "alone" day until the actual gig.

I'll be spending a lot of time in parking lots.

August 29:
I interview Matthew, who gives me great material. I am incredibly grateful. I easily incorporate his examples, cite him, and soon commit those additions to memory.

August 30 - 31:
My daughter is home now, so my only practice opps are when she has a playdate. Of course, I want to play with her, too. When she is with a friend or watching some TV, I take advantage of practice time in my bedroom behind a closed door.

Then I have to deal with one of our cats, Catbert, loudly meowing, breaking my concentration and rhythm. I send him out.

Just when I start the intro again, the damned cat cries outside the door (equally distracting!). I let him back in, trying to ignore him rubbing his face against the hard edge of the folder that holds my notes.

September 1-3:
No practice... last weekend trip before my daughter goes back to school. I attempt to practice in my head in the car. No go. My 3-year-old screams "Michael Jack-in CD”. Then he toddler-sings his way through “Beat It.”
September 4:
I'm getting very familiar with the grocery store parking lot; our house is well-stocked! Since my practice time now occurs in bits, I run through different sections of each presentation whenever I'm alone. I seem to have the introductions down, so I will not practice those again until closer to the presentation. 

September 5-6:
Very little practice in the back-to-school ramp-up. I keep my key word notes by my bed so I can look at them each morning and night.

September 7:

The big day! My car ride is just under three hours. I drop my daughter off for her first day of school, then go home and fully practice both presentations in my kitchen. On the way to the site, I speak them out further in the car—and I listen to a little Michael Jack-in.

September 7, 3:30 p.m.
I'm in a room of 400+ (!!!!!) fired-up student leaders from all over the state. With messaging that they need to “show their spirit” during the conference, they chant, they whoop, they dance. If my usual nervousness feels like moths in my stomach, seeing the size of this audience feels like large butterflies-to-baby-bats (not full-sized bats, mind you—I do have experience at this). I remind myself that I’ve spoken in large auditoriums during my Toastmaster days and I’ll be fine. 

Suddenly, I feel my mind go blank. What’s my first line again?

This is typical for me. I expect it. However, history tells me that I’m going to get up and use my nerves to energize myself and my audience. More importantly, the audience has no idea what my notes contain, so as long as I squeak out something that remotely sounds like it’s supposed to be there, I’ll be okay.

In my speaking experience, I trust.

In my practice investment, I also trust.

I tell myself, “You know this. Go nail it.”

September 7, 3:40 p.m.
I am introduced. My opener flows smoothly and is well-received by the audience. They rise when I ask them to, and respond to my questions. They participate in the role-plays. They are welcoming, energetic, magnetic. 

I’m on fire, too. I now have the “good burn” in my belly that inspires me to project with boom, to pause in strategic places for effect, to work my vocal inflection in a way that sends the deepest, most impactful verbal and nonverbal message.

I am in my element. I am me. This feeling is what I love, love, love about speaking down into my bones.

Then I check on the time. Damn times three. I only have five minutes and my two end-points will likely get left behind. The interaction moments took longer than I thought with this size of an audience.
Fortunately, the points were not included in my key themes that the audience read in their overview. They were extra extras.

I jump into my ending. I seal it up. The students give me a spirited applause.

Off to the next presentation.

Students, I realize that you don’t always have a month-plus to put into every single presentation that you have to give in college (or anywhere, for that matter). But think about it: I know many, many students give themselves too little time for preparation and then wonder why they fumble, have to read their speeches verbatim, and feel so freaked out about it--even ill!

Giving yourself the most lead-time before your presentations actually helps your nervousness. I have delivered tons of speeches. I can’t wing. Don’t put that pressure on yourself either.

If you have a presentation coming up, give yourself a good two weeks, if possible. Even one week, if you work on it every day. Finalize your notes at least 48-72 hours before the presentation and only practice with the notes you are going to use in the presentation.

I know speaking can be stressful. Follow even some of my path with your own prep and it will show. 

You—and your voice—will shine. 

Have questions about an upcoming presentation? It’s what I’m here for! Write in!!! Colleagues, willing to share how you prep for presentations?


  1. I'm so impressed that you have a speaking agent! I also think there's a strong reason that I'm a writer :)

  2. Thank you! That was an unexpected twist in my little book writing/sabbatical journey. But, it's a good one--I LOVE speaking. I also love writing :-). I'm glad you commented. Ellen

  3. Loosely related - this year I tried a new thing in syllabus construction: I negotiated the course requirements with my small class of a dozen or so. What, sadly, I could not talk them into was a class presentation. I'm rather disappointed in myself that I could not argue convincingly that this bit of public speaking was good for them.

  4. Hi, Jack,

    You know, I'm absolutely not surprised that the students did not self-select that particular task. Is it too late to convince them? We both know that the confidence boost is so worth it. What about if they do a smaller speech in smaller groups? I do a self-concept bag presentation where the students break out into groups of four/five. I separate the groups enough so they won't distract each other. One student in each group stands and presents just to their four or five cohorts. I walk around the interior and listen for about a minute, then move on. It's a full-points assignment at the beginning of the term, but helps them take some smaller steps and they feel better about facing the larger speeches. What do you think?