How I overcame my fear of public speaking through visual preparation.
Ten years ago, I first stepped out onto the intimidating red circle on the TED stage. I was so nervous I tripped over the rug and feared no words would come out. It was a life-changing moment. Since then, I’ve been privileged to give hundreds of talks alongside many brilliant speakers including Sir Ken Robinson, Simon Sinek, Amy Cuddy and Angela Duckworth.
When I first started presenting my ideas, I was intrigued by people’s presence, body language, and particularly their charisma on stage. I thought this was the way to solve my insecurities. Over the past decade, however, I’ve realised what distinguishes a good speaker from a great one, is how they prepare.
Obviously, there is no single or ‘right’ way to prep, but finding what really works for you is critical. Through trial and error, I’ve learned that writing out detailed scripts, mapping out bullet points and using fancy software such as iMap, doesn’t help me. I hate practising out-loud and cringe at the idea of videotaping a rehearsal.
I think visually.
I started my career as an artist so my mind is wired to make complex things simple through design. When I’m on stage you are basically experiencing a visual map of thoughts and ideas I want to share with you.
It looks a bit like this:
ENDPOINT: A simple trick is to start with the endpoint. It sounds “duh” but it took me years to realise how critical it is to give the audience a clear sense of where you want to take them. You’re not giving away the destination but sharing a guide to the journey. (Simon Sinek and Adam Grant are masters of this technique.) Talks never quite click when you are not clear on the final destination; the place you want your audience to get to.
I’ve found it is less about the ‘big aha’ (an overrated concept) but rather the state you want participants to walk away in.
“How do I want them to feel?” should be equally balanced with “What do I want them to have learned?”
There are different types of endpoints. For example, ask yourself do you want to give the audience:
· A different lens on something so they can see the world a little differently?
· A challenge around an assumption that may be getting in the way at work or at home?
· A useful tool or framework they can apply to all kinds of situations?
· Inspiration to take some kind of action?
VISUAL JOURNEY: One tool is to think of delivering a visual journey with ups and downs, slow bits and fast bits, complex twists, and simple landing points. It’s a useful approach for mapping out presentations because you can literally use different coloured post-it notes for key ingredients: landing points, stories, stats, bridges, energy points (or whatever mix you use.)
When watching other presenters, take note of when you are tuning out; frequently, it’s because the speech is meandering all over the place or has been on the same flat road for too long. Speeches need different tempo, light, and shade. You need to feel like you’re continually progressing along a journey with the presenter.
ENERGISERS: In the speech map above, the bright yellow post-its are what I call ‘energizer moments.’ They vary from a video to a question or an interactive exercise with the audience. The benefit of mapping the process visually is you can see when you're going to be on stage for a stretch with no shift in energy. This tends to be draining for the presenter and monotone for the audience.
Put simply, energizers provide an opportunity to connect and change the energy for the audience.
FRAME (OR STRUCTURE): Most speakers need a clear framework that acts like a roadmap or a personal score. Master orators sometimes look like they are just rifting but there is usually a hidden frame they are shaping their words around. Other speakers make their roadmap clear at the start, telling audiences “I’m going to cover three points. Here’s where we’re going to start.”
Here three common framing mistakes to avoid:
1. Making the frame too complex: You know the powerpoint slide with something in the middle and then eight boxes hanging off it? That’s it! Urgh.
2. Frame overtakes the experience: Speeches can have too much structure or feel too formulaic. For example, the 5 or 10 point list speech (when really the presenter only has 2 great points). It feels like you’re running through a list.
3. No frame: The feeling here for the audience is being lost. I sat in a talk earlier this year and the presenter had stunning slides and such fascinating things to share. She meandered for the entire 60 minutes. The problem was that there was no map, zero structure.
OPENING STORY: It sounds counterintuitive but I’d recommend deciding on your opening story last.
What is a story that captures the essence of what you are really going to be talking about?
Openers need to help the audience (and you the presenter) settle into the journey. Personally, they literally ground me onto the stage transforming nerves into energy. (The author and internet theorist Clay Shirky is a master at opening stories.) I will typically tell a personal story, one about my children, a mistake I’ve made or something unexpected. The stories are about me but I’m not selling my credentials (it's off-putting to start with a list of achievements.)
Try to signal to the audience with a relatable story:
‘I’m okay being vulnerable up here’ and ‘I‘m excited to share something with you I’ve discovered and this is why it could be relevant to you.’
BACKDROP: If you use slides, it's helpful to think of them as visual scenery that will bring everything to life and make your points clearer.
I’ve tried the whole ‘in the moment flip-chart’ thing but I usually end up either dropping the pen, with ink on my face or some scribble the audience can’t read! I’ve tried presenting without slides but because I don’t take notes on stage, I’m left without any guidance. The visuals are literally like my GPS, so I bring a simple visual slide language with me on stage that I know works.
Here you can see how I’ve taken a point from my book Who Can You Trust? and turned it into a visual that will appear on the big screen (left-hand graphic).
When developing graphics, it’s helpful to keep removing content from the slide. How can you make the image and text as simple as possible?
TIMING: How far out you should prepare for a speech obviously depends on the talk and the occasion. But the idea that you can be over-prepared for a talk is rubbish. Over-rehearsed, for sure. Thorough preparation takes the guesswork out of the talk, which means you can relax on stage, enjoy the experience, and let genuine unplanned moments happen.
FINAL MOMENT: Before you hit the stage, ask yourself one final question. It’s a tip I learned from Brene Brown:
It puts you in a state of giving, not presenting.