Preparation and practice are the bedrock of public speaking success. Honestly, if you’re well prepared (both practically and psychologically) and well rehearsed, you’ll be fine whatever happens. Yes, whatever happens!
The time to start preparing your speech or presentation is the moment you find out you’re going to be giving it. If the prospect scares you, the tug can be to hide from it and pretend it’s not happening, but the longer you ignore it, the bigger the monster will loom. To spin that positively, the sooner you can get your talk sorted out, the sooner you can stop worrying about it. The more thoroughly you prepare, the more in control you will feel when the time comes. Find out everything you need to know about the subject you’re going to be talking about, about the audience and about the venue where you’re going to be speaking. The more you know in advance, the less can take you by surprise on the day.
How to Prepare Your Content
While to a great extent public speaking is public speaking, and the required skills are much the same, speeches and presentations involve slightly different preparation – or, at least, the emphasis is different, particularly with the way PowerPoint is generally used (or one might say abused). For this reason, I’ve addressed preparing the content in two separate posts: How to Write a Speech and How to Write a Presentation. Please feel free to read both but I imagine one will resonate with you more than the other, depending on the task ahead of you.
How to Prepare Your Notes
What you’re ultimately aiming at is a neat, discreet set of index cards, with writing on only one side, held together loosely with string or equivalent tied through a hole punched in the top left-hand corner. On these cards, you’ll need only the minimum – probably a couple of words for each main point.
If you’re long-sighted, try to write big enough that you can read your notes without your glasses. Otherwise, it makes too big a deal of what should be a very understated little move, just to see what’s coming up next.
Before you get to this stage, however, you’ll waste a fair amount of paper (I suggest you reserve the cards till late in the process) as you work on your talk. It’s essential you use rough paper for the early phases, so you’ve got nothing invested in not changing the structure and level of detail and so on of your speech or presentation. Go on tearing it up and starting again until it sounds right. If there’s a bit where you always stumble, don’t push yourself harder but change it.
Preparing the Environment
Find out as much as you can in advance about the circumstances in which you are going to be speaking. For example, is someone going to introduce you or do you need to introduce yourself? Are you going to need a microphone and, if so, do you need to bring your own? Take nothing for granted!
Arrive at the venue at least an hour early, to give yourself time to check everything is in order. If you’re using PowerPoint or any other technology, set it up and run through it long before you’re due to start and make sure it all works. If it doesn’t and it can’t be fixed, you need to have a back-up plan up your sleeve.
Look at the seating layout. If it doesn’t suit your purposes, see if you can change it. With a smallish group, a horseshoe formation is generally more conducive to interacting with the audience than are rows of chairs all facing the front.
Know that if you’re really well prepared, you’re not going to come unstuck. Between your notes and the practice you will have put in, you will have no trouble with the words. Practical preparation and practice will carry you a very long way.
Beyond this, it comes down to mental discipline. Do not allow yourself to go off into fantasies about it all going horribly wrong. You are in control. You will do a good job of your speech or presentation. This is not some airy-fairy belief in the power of positive thinking; it’s a fact, based on the hard evidence of the preparation and practice you’ve put in.
If any part of the plan were to go awry, all that matters is that you are not fazed by it. If you laugh it off and brazen it out, your audience will forgive you anything. This is what I meant when I said at the top of the page you’ll be fine whatever happens. Even if disaster were to strike, if you handle it with aplomb, you may even emerge with your reputation enhanced, since you dealt with a difficult situation so well.
When Preparation Gives Way to Practice
The preparation goes on until you’ve knocked your speech or presentation into shape and are happy with how it sounds and flows. Then you need to practise it until you’re so familiar with it that you don’t have to think about how you’re going to express yourself.
Read about Practice