Saturday, January 12, 2008

Approaching a Presentation

Since I’m getting ready for another presentation I thought I might post again on public speaking. I talked about it several times last year but one thing I didn’t discuss is how I actually prepare. Some of you with experience with public speaking will have developed your own strategies, and I’m not saying mine is the best by any means. I’ve used it for a long time, though, and it works for me.

Sometimes I’m asked to speak on a particular topic, and of course I do so. But a lot of venues leave the topic open, only hoping for something that will benefit other writers, particularly newer writers. In that case, I tend to select a topic for my talk that I personally want to know more about rather than picking something I know well. Enthusiasm is a big key to putting over a talk, and it’s hard to work up enthusiasm for something you have thought out very well. If I pick a topic I don’t know a lot about but want to, then I’m in an excited state of learning when I construct my talk, and that excitement is usually still there when I’m in front of people. A new insight or two into the writing process is certainly beneficial to me as a writer, but it also translates into an emotional excitement that can bleed into a talk and excite the audience.

Once I’ve decided on a topic, I immerse myself in reading about it. This usually calls for a trip to the library, but I often find a lot of stuff available online or in reference books that I already have hanging around the house. I usually jot some notes down for the talk as I’m reading, but I don’t even make an attempt to organize them at first. This is really more of a thinking/learning stage.

Once the writing begins, after a few days of thinking/learning, I first know I will need an intro, an icebreaker. I also know that this doesn’t have to have any detailed relationship to the main focus of the speech, so I personally always look for a way to work dreams and nightmares in. People love to talk about and hear about dreams, and I’ve got plenty to chose from and can usually find one that I can relate to the main topic of my talk.

For the main topic, I try to find a way to create “bullet points” for it. “Four ways to create Quick suspense,” for example. Or, “six ways to think about characters.” Lists such as this are not only a boon to an audience, they are a boon to the speaker as well. They really help organize material in a meaningful fashion, and they make it much easier to rehearse and learn a talk. Psychologists know that “part” learning is easier than “whole” learning for lengthy material. For example, it’s easy to memorize a six line poem by going over it all at once. But for a forty line poem it’s easier to memorize it one stanza at a time and then connect the stanzas. For a talk, I also find it easier to learn and rehearse each bullet point, then link point 1 with 2 and so on. This is part of that “modular” process that I talked about last year.

Finally, when writing up a presentation I tend to first write it out pretty much word for word as I intend to give it. Once it’s written, I like to let it sit for a few days because when I come back to it new points often occur to me. After everything is pretty much finished, I simply give it a few days of rereading without making any supreme effort to learn it. I’m just letting it “soak in” so to speak. Then I take my complete speech and make an outline of it, putting just the labels of the “parts” with a point or two under each label to focus my memory. As I begin to rehearse, using my outline but with the full speech available for checking myself, I do it in sections, like I mentioned above, and often practice on drives in the car, or on walks.

Anyway, that’s my basic approach, and now I better get back to it.


Sphinx Ink said...

Thanks, Charles, for a great explanation of preparing for a talk. Public speaking is one of my biggest fears. Although I've overcome part of the fear in the last few years, I still become very apprehensive when required to speak to a group. Preparation, of course, is key to a good presentation. Your approach will be good for me to follow so I'll feel confident I know my topic, if I'm ever invited to speak at some future meeting. (Assuming I have the courage to accept the invitation...)

By the way, you blog readers who haven't had a chance to hear Charles speak, his presentations are always thoughtful, insightful, interesting, and humorous, too.

Steve Malley said...

Your method's not too far off of mine. I usually throw in a bit of rehearsal too where I just mind my posture and projection: fighting off my tendency to slump and mumble.

Come the day of the speech, I pick two or three receptive faces in the crowd and use them as eye-contact touchstones.

Aw man, now I want to go give a speech...

cs harris said...

An interesting approach, Charles. Many good ideas here. But why do you keep scheduling these talks of Monday nights? Hmmm?

Miladysa said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this post and appreciated the points you make particularly the first one about the topic itself.

I have never come across anyone who did not have a dream to tell of :)

Lana Gramlich said...

It's cool watching you go into lecture mode.
(C.S.; Scheduling has been up to the St. Tammany Parish library system, actually.)

Anonymous said...

Nice piece . . . very! Public speaking jitters affects all but the hardest stones.

Charles Gramlich said...

Sphinx, thank you for the kind words. I bet you would be a very good speaker.

Steve Malley, because of doing so much lecturing in classes where I work to scan the entire auridence, I've actually gotten out of the habit of eye-contact touchstones," unless Lana is there.

Candice, I didn't plan them for Monday nights. I hate to miss our writing group. But both this one and the Covington one were sponsered by the St. Tammany Libary and Monday night is when they hold their speaking series.

Miladysa, agreed. Folks are fascianted with dreams.

Lana, I don't even think about it most of the time.

Wayne, I certainly had them badly when I first started teaching.

ivan said...


Had a comment for you about public speaking, but Blogger ate it.

I usually walk around like a crazy person from supermarket to mall until it comes to me.

Michelle's Spell said...


I'm totally impressed -- very planned and smart! I'm more the whole scribble notes on the back of my checkbook and hope for the best. Hey, it's the only the use my checkbook gets in terms of pratical function since I'm even worse about actually balancing it. But I do realize that some lectures take more work -- I'm doing a writing about sex (which I almost never do) lecture at a writing conference at Hollins this summer -- that one I'm trying to get some tips for now.

Erik Donald France said...

"If I pick a topic I don’t know a lot about but want to . . ."

Excellent advice for a lot of things -- enthusiasm going into the fray.

Travis Cody said...

I like the idea of the modular learning of each section of a talk. I have trouble with memory and this approach always works best for me.

I also love to use power point because it allows me to use the outline of my topic, and gives my listeners a visual from which to take notes. If I have to talk without that, I use note cards.

Fortunately I don't have to give a lot of speeches. I don't mind talking in public but I'd rather not.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ivan, blogger has been known to do that.

Michelle, I've never given a talk about that topic, although at least I get to lecture on sex when I talk about Freud. I'd probably be terrified to talk about it from a writing perspective.

Erik, enthusiasm is such a key.

Travis, yes, if powerpoint is set up well it provides a modular approach.

Shauna Roberts said...

Thanks, Charles. A lot of useful ideas that I hadn't thought of on my own.

the walking man said...

And to think I spent a semester learning these points from a crazy ass professor. Oh well at least I got the three credit hours.

I have never been asked to give a lecture or talk on anything but last year poetry slamming was somewhat similar in preparation.

But I love public speaking be it reciting something I have written or just giving a discourse to a fairly large crowd. To me it was like fixing cars when I did fear.



Danette Haworth said...

Good luck on the presentation!

and it’s hard to work up enthusiasm for something you have thought out very well.
Good point. The speaker/performer needs to feel a sense of discovery, too. When he was building his new act, Jerry Seinfeld said he retired all of his jokes from his former stand-up routine; he wanted to start out fresh.

SzélsőFa said...

wow, that is some great outline. I assume preparing for a speach takes almost a week or more!

Stacia said...

This is great! If anyone is ever so misguided as to ask me to speak on something, and I am so misguided as to accept, I will definitely use this. :-)

Charles Gramlich said...

Shauna, glad it if suggested anything helpful.

Mark, I've got lots of fear.

Danette, that's it, absolutely. a senes of discovery is a good way to put it.

Szelsofa, if I have the luxury of it I'd say yes, about a week is a good amount of time to prepare for a talk.

Stacia, I'm sure you would do fine.

Josephine Damian said...

Charles, on my first day of class last week, I asked the prof if we had to do a power point presentation to the class on the topic we picked for our term paper (the other prof who taught the same class last year required a PP).

He said, Hey, I hadn't thought about that but since you mention it yes, a power point will be required in this class.

Well, you should have seen the nasty looks I got from the other students! Apparently the prof saw these looks, and he said it was good practice for public speaking (which I certainly need).

Very informative post. Let us know if you ever come to FL and give a talk!

Tyhitia Green said...

Thanks for sharing, Charles. If I have ever have to speak publicly,(most writers do)I will defnintely use your outline for assistance! :*)

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

This is great advice! I would love to hear you speak in person!

Charles Gramlich said...

Josephine, I'm imagining those looks that you got. You probably didn't make a lot of friends there. But it is good preparation for developing speeches. Thanks for dropping by.

Demon hunter, glad if it was helpful.

Ello, well I wish I was paid at the level I deserve and then I would have flown all my blogger friends in. ;)

Anndi said...

I've always hated that part of my job... I think I'll try this and hopefully it'll help.

Thanks Charles.