Plan A, B, C, D, and E: On Public Speaking

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I’ve been doing more public speaking in recent years. And I think I’m a decent public speaker–teaching in a classroom has certainly helped me be more at ease in front of a crowd, and it has taught me how to establish rapport with my audience.

But here’s the thing: I used to get very bad stage fright. Like, frozen up on stage in front of hundreds of people, fright.

Ground zero for this fright happened about fifteen years ago, when I went up on stage at a blogging conference, with very little preparation. “Oh, I’m just going to talk,” was my thinking. “I’ve a lot to say.” (Did I tell you I was like, twenty-five years old at the time–ah the arrogance of youth). And then I got up on stage and stared at the hundreds of people before me, and then I had that moment where things felt very strange, and I felt very teeny tiny small, and my mind went…blank.

I learned a very good lesson that day about myself: I need to always be prepared. In fact, I now over-prepare for my talks. And the more I prepare, the better my talks go. The better the feedback. And the more I enjoy my time on stage.

I still get sweaty and hot before I talk. So you’ll likely always see me in a sleeveless top whenever I have a microphone in my hand or pinned to my shirt. And I have to park myself near a restroom for the hour or two beforehand, because my body apparently just wants to dehydrate itself before I go in front of an audience.

But my heart no longer thumps. And I no longer feel a deep fear that I’ll go blank on stage.

Because I prepare.

I have a Plan A, B, C, and D when I go into my talks. I try to address all the unknowns or all the variables, and have at least a rough plan for each. I thought I’d share a little of my planning process with you.

What is the topic at hand?
Research your topic. Get an outline going for your overall narrative. Make notes. Rehearse. Rehearse. As a backup, think of anecdotes that might go well to illustrate your points. Have them in your back pocket to liven up your talk. Plan A is to have your talk in its ideal format. Plan B is to figure out supplemental information for your talk.

Who is the audience?
Novices? Experts? Peers? Figure out to whom you are speaking, so you can make sure your talk is relevant and enlightening. If you don’t know–think about ways you can broaden your talk and/or have a back up plan on different angles. If you are uncertain as to who your audience might be, think about having a mini-ice breaker at the beginning and ask the audience questions relevant to your talk and that will give you insight into their level of experience. This is where you may want to have a Plan A, B, C, and D–keep your main outline, but keep in mind where you may have to go should the audience not connect with your talk.

And if you get nervous–look up and spot someone with an encouraging look on their face. Talk to THEM. It may feel a bit creepy, but you gotta get through it!

How many people are in the audience?
Is it a crowd of 500? 100? 50? 30? 10? Your approach will differ with each. Plan A may be a talk for 500 people, but if you end up with 10 people in your audience, you will want to be prepared with a Plan B that is more interactive. Have an exercise regarding your topic. Ask for their questions upfront.

What equipment do I need?
Overhead projector? Music? Let your organizers know. And if for whatever reason the equipment falls through, you need a backup plan. One year, I wanted to do powerpoint slides for a panel talk at a large conference. I knew there would be hundreds of people in the room, and I wanted people in the back to have a visual and also for everyone to see the framework for our discussions. But oops: the projector didn’t work. So I handed the questions out to our panelists, and I made sure to be extra articulate when saying questions and facilitating.

If the room is going to be 30 people–you may want to show up with copies of your preso–and then you can hand them out.

What if your panelists go blank?
Have questions for your own panel. Little ice breakers. Sometimes a question won’t go over well, or it may have been addressed earlier in the talk. You don’t have to keep to the pre-arranged program. Figure out where you may have to offroad.

What if you go blank?
This is when you have notes or an outline up there with you. It’s okay to pause and refer to your notes. This is where your preparation comes in. If you have to, write ENCOURAGING NOTES to yourself in your notes! Tell yourself to smile! Or if you have a tendency to speak fast, write “SLOW DOWN” in your notes.

What if the audience is totally fading?
You can stick to your outline, or you can check in. I ask, “Make sense?” I check in with my audience–this may be a good time to ask if they have questions.

Also, little details mean a lot when you’re up there…so what can you do to make yourself comfortable?
If you have access to the room beforehand, get up there when it’s empty and walk the stage. Or stand behind the podium. So you get a feel beforehand. If you run hot when you’re nervous, do NOT wear a sweater–or at least wear layers so you can peel off a sweater. If you run cold, wear a sweater! Think about your footwear–this shouldn’t be the first time you wear those shoes, or a pair of heels if you never wear heels. Wear clothing that makes you feel confident. Figure out if you can, the color of the backdrop: if you have a black curtain behind you, ditch the black outfit. Or if it’s a red curtain, maybe not a green dress? If your talk will be videotaped, seriously consider NOT wearing pinstripes (they strobe on the screen). Be aware of your own comforts. Make a list of things you need, beforehand so you don’t have to think about it the morning of.

Anyway, those are my ten cents. Now I gotta go prepare for my panel at AWP.

2 Comments

  1. GREAT points Christine. I was fortunate enough to catch your public speaking in action in Portland’s Press Publish. And you definitely exuded a sort of “this presenter prepared for her presentation” aura.

    Thanks for the tips. I totally agree with the notion of having some notes in hand (and not being embarrassed about it). Certainly don’t sit up there and read off your notes (or worse, 3×5 cards), but it can be very helpful to have notes in hand… just in case.

    With technologies like PollEverywhere (or even keeping it low-tech and just asking people to turn to their neighbor and share a thought), you can keep it interactive even if you do have a room of 500 (or 5000).

    Thanks for sharing your story at Press Publish. Good luck with the books!!

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