When I was 24, I gave a speech at my grandfather’s wake. As the oldest grandchild, I took my responsibility seriously, writing my speech beforehand, carefully choosing every word and punctuation mark. But when it came time to deliver the speech, I was stiff and sped through my words. I got so caught up in reciting every word I had memorized that I failed to convey what my grandfather meant to me and our family.
Now at age 38, I’m the head of North American Financial Services at GLG, the world’s largest platform for professional learning, and speaking in front of groups is a crucial element of my job -- whether I like it or not. Until recently, I did not; and it was a personal and professional challenge.
In 2013, I delivered a quarterly business update to more than 250 people. I spent weeks preparing. I scripted every sentence, joke, and pause -- practice makes perfect, after all -- and I hit every word. When I asked my colleagues for feedback, they told me the talk seemed rigid, rehearsed, and hard to engage with. The disappointment I felt after my grandfather’s wake returned and my frustration with this feedback became the motivation I needed to finally tackle this problem head on.
Over the past two years, I’ve read books on improving public speaking. I turned to the most knowledgeable media coaches I could find, including two of the best in the business, Matt Kohut and Seth Pendleton. And I learned a lot, including how to relax before speaking and how to appear more comfortable on stage. But no matter how much I practiced, there was still a mental block.
The big breakthrough came when I understood that some of the tactics I’d been using were actually doing me more harm than good. The problem with relying on rigorous memorization is that if you confuse the order of just one sentence during your talk, the entire flow can unravel. I realized that for me, the “practice makes perfect approach” gets in the way of conveying warmth. I’d thought that preparation meant complete scripting, but I learned it should focus more on the central meaning and less on the precise words.
The less I script and memorize, the freer I am to be myself. I got the advice “don’t write out a story you already know how to tell.” When I share stories from memory (instead of from memorization) my personality and sensibility come out.
The first time I gave a business update without a script I was nervous, but I knew the material from running this business every day. As I’ve become more comfortable without a script, I’ve learned what kind of preparation tactics work best for me. Chances are they hold true for others as well.
- Map it out. For shorter presentations, I stick to simple bullets. I plan out the major points of my presentation, but I don’t write out full sentences and I certainly don’t write a script for myself. For longer presentations I create detailed outlines, choose what stories I’m going to tell, and I memorize the critical transitions between stops along the way. I rehearse with a focus on flow and feeling instead of recitation.
- Memorize key data points. I like to include a few powerful data points when I present to substantiate my arguments and show command of the material. Numbers are easier to memorize than full sentences and can also serve as helpful navigation tools if you need redirection back to central points.
- Be patient with feedback. I used to solicit immediate feedback from anyone willing to give it. Now I don’t have time to linger for comments. Feedback is important, but it’s not as important as knowing I’m improving one talk at a time.
- Watch the game tape. I watch recordings of my talks whenever I can. This exercise is excruciating, but the benefits are extraordinary. There’s nothing more helpful than seeing what other people see and seeing the progress I’m making. But I’ve also had to accept I’m my own harshest critic, which is why I…
- Fix one thing at a time. After I finish speaking and I’ve had time to digest feedback, I identify one area to improve for next time. I set individual goals for myself, rather than striving for complete perfection in my next talk.
A couple of months ago, I delivered a presentation at my company’s largest annual event. Afterwards, attendees filled out a survey evaluating the presentations. The feedback on my talk was incredibly positive. One of my harshest critics called out the improvement he’d seen me make. Others wrote they appreciated the clarity of the presentation, which helped them understand our business goals for the year.
I felt great afterward. But I had an even bigger talk to give as the best man at my brother’s wedding. Beyond fulfilling my duties as best man, this speech was my chance at redemption, as many of the family members in attendance were there 14 years ago for my grandfather’s wake. To prepare, I followed an outline and planned out which stories I would tell, but I didn’t burden myself with a script.
My speech wasn’t perfect, but it was genuine and a dramatic improvement on the past. Most importantly, I was extremely proud to have conveyed, from the heart, all that I had to say to my brother on his wedding day.