Going off script

I tried my first unscripted formal presentation today at our annual meeting. It was incredibly fun.

While I’ve done many 3–5 minute introductions off-script, I’ve never gone so far as to attempt this in a “high stakes” environment. Sure, I’ll do it when kicking off an event or summit at USV (but this is something I do several times a month and essentially have drilled into my head too deep to mess it up). I even launched into impromptu storytelling mode when kicking off Beyond Coding, an educational series I organize that teaches emerging software developers professional work skills. Again, lower stakes. (But good practice.)

I had never dared to try that “off the cuff” style at a real work presentation.

My typical presentation prep goes like this: Write out my whole plan in advance, include all datapoints, anecdotes, and one-liners that I want to be sure to get right. Memorize the exact lines I want to say to lead me in and lead me out of one slide to the next so that it’s perfectly seamless in real time. Then audio record myself two or three times through and listen back to it. Sometimes I’ll even force my dear husband to listen to a dry run.

That’s what I did for this same 10-minute window at last year’s annual meeting presentation. It was good. But it could have been better. I think it was also fairly obvious that it was pre-scripted, even though I wasn’t reading from anything. As a result, I couldn’t react as well in real time. I couldn’t amend the introduction or read the room or play back to it. In the end, I over-prepared so much to the point that I had anticipated every possible question that might come my way — and nobody asked any of them. I felt satisfied, but also a little cheated on all the extra prep work I put into it.

So for this presentation, I decided to try something new. I had three slides and 10 minutes, which were prepared a week before. Truly, until yesterday, I didn’t even remember what was on the second slide. (It’s been a busy week.) Overall though, I kept the slides pretty vague — one had our mission statement and a photo, one had a few bullet points with another photo, and the third had only an image of a classic wheel explaining each part of our model. Needless to say, lots of wiggle room to fill up the time.

At around 3 p.m. yesterday, I started asking my colleagues, “What would you want to hear in this update?” It felt simultaneously reckless and exhilarating to be so last-minute. Despite all of my inner desire to flop back into my default state, I resisted the urge to write anything down. Instead, I spent time yesterday familiarizing myself on the most recent numbers, re-reading a few case studies, and reviewing the progress we’ve done this year.

And finally, at 10 p.m. last night, I allowed myself to write three short bullet point reminders per slide. Most were short phrases: “You are not alone” and “Community and belonging” or “Patterns are part of the startup life cycle.” The bulk of the content was on slide two, when I had a few discrete numbers I wanted to remember and share. I memorized those.

But even as the day began, I still hadn’t decided how to open and close the talk. It was exciting. My colleague asked me, “Are you ready for the presentation?” I said, “Who knows? But I’ll be coming in hot!” I asked her to at the very least give me a cue when I hit the five-minute mark. (As I had not practiced any of it, I wanted to be sure to stick firmly in my 10-minute window.)

Now, this isn’t to say I wasn’t thinking about it. As a constant backburner task, in my head I was turning over ideas and stories for the front and back-end a lot the night before. But any time I started to mentally zero in on a particular word or phrase, I again resisted the temptation to lock it in. I wanted it to feel natural.

The fun part about this was that I was able to read the room a lot more. At our dinner last night, I listened carefully to how people reacted when I explained what we are working on in the network. Like usual, I tested out a few different ways of explaining it each time. Each meeting added a bit more context to my audience and really helped me internalize what they might react to the following day.

I was one of the last people to present today. This meant that I got the benefit of watching everybody else before me, and I decided a fun thing to do would be to find a way to link them all together. Rather than sit in the back, stuck in my own head about getting everything right, I remained very present, actively observing nuances and quirks of other speakers.

One of the ideas I had was to start with a question. Something like, “Do you know what it’s like to be the only person in your job?” But something that would somehow get us to land on this idea of belonging. I also considered starting with a story, something to hearken back to the photo on the slide. In the end, I took a chance on something a little braver, asking our room of LPs to think back on their very first year in their current jobs and slowly walking them through a mental exercise that was intended to get them in the heads of our typical network member.

I’m pretty happy with how it all went down.

Typically, I’m a “wind up and go” kind of speaker. Lots of energy but sometimes I never know where I’ll end up. In the wrong context, this can be a dangerous mix.

Having the opportunity to practice a bit of controlled chaos was just enough of a constraint for me to feel experimental, genuine, and completely present with the room around me. While I didn’t hit on every single point I had considered discussing, I could tell most of the room was in lock-step with me, and the caliber of questions I received this year compared to last year validated that too.

Now that I’ve done it once, I’d love to try it again. Extemporaneous speaking is something I’ve always admired in great leaders, and the only way to get better at it is to just start doing it.