How (not) to prepare for public speaking…

TEDx University of St Andrews, The Byre Theatre, April 26, 2015.

I was asked the other day about how to prepare for talking in public, and more specifically a TEDx talk. So here are some random thoughts on how to go about it, or depending on how you take the advice, how not to…

As someone lucky enough to have been invited, and somehow got through a talk back in 2015, it’s something I’m happy to talk through in terms of preparation and how to get through 18 minutes without any prompts or screens to use as a guide.

Like all TED talks, the setting is familiar — relatively close audience, no more than 18 minutes, and as little reference to aids or cue cards as you can get away with. Indeed TED discouraged prompter screens at its main events. And thus you have to know what you’re saying.

But you have to enjoy what you’re saying too. There’s little point standing up, delivering words that don’t really interest you — it’s just my opinion but unless you’re a competent actor, you’ll get found out pretty quickly.

So for a few days, I knocked around some ideas with friends until it was mostly intact and they thought it sounded worth doing. The basic theme was there, “old guy complains about young guys in tech” — but spun through the talk to deliver a hopeful message that kids today, have huge opportunities compared to our time.

And it was important too, to have a bit of fun along the way. As a sideline I dabble with making stupid things out of Scotch Pies, so it was mandatory to include some of those.

I opted to use slides for the talk, to add a bit of colour — but was told we wouldn’t be able to see them on the day, assuming you wouldn’t spend the whole talk facing the wrong way to look at the screen. That meant knowing the talk off by heart, the points at which to change the slides, and the flow to get through — so you could naturally click through everything without too much thought.

The slides had to be submitted at least two weeks ahead, and my usual way is to write a full-text script, in paragraphs which relate to each slide. I find that an average of 1 minute per slide is about right for pacing, so set up a block of headings to split up the talk that way.

Having submitted, I stupidly forgot all about it (due to pressures of work and travel) and didn’t return to rehearsing until about 3 days before. The first attempt was to read the script over and over again, and whilst driving to work and back, just talking out loud and recording to the phone. That got pretty tedious and was mostly a shambles, so the next day I tried a plan B.

This time, I took the paragraphs as seen in the slide deck — and gave them all some ‘memorable’ headings. I thought if it was possible to learn the sequence of these off by heart, there would be a visual memory of what the slide was saying, and I should be able to describe what’s going on. After all, that’s really what the talk was doing — the slides were a companion to the script.

And thus the sequence, which I still (mostly) remember, became:

Ryan Giggs
Sewing lesson
ZX Spectrum
Dirty books
Internet rage
Pirate software & dubious ladies
Andrew email
Andrew Minecraft
Toilet selfies
Untidy bedroom
Nick at Yahoo
Dyson hoovers
More pies

And yet it just didn’t click. The sequence was fine if I was just rattling out the headings, but when it came to the actual content under the headings, everything went wrong. Gradually it started to sink in, but not enough.

So I made a set of cue cards to hold on stage — figuring if they were small enough, they could sit in my hand and make sense. Except at that size, with a 1200-word script, even prompts beyond the ‘funny titles’ mentioned above, weren’t enough. And it was impossible to use the script itself, far too big.

If you watch the video, the prompts are in my hand, shielded by a phone. A few people assumed the phone was a prop as part of the talk — it was more of a cunning disguise.

In the end, there was nothing else for it — holding the script and talking to the kitchen wall for almost an entire Saturday afternoon and evening, until most of it stuck. It wasn’t 100% but I thought, it’s probably a forgiving audience and nobody’s really going to watch it on YouTube, so let’s just give it a bash. If it’s going badly I’d resort to jokes about pies and my poor dress sense (which were in the script anyway, but plenty more where they came from).

On the day I met a fellow presenter, who was telling us how he was still rehearsing — as were some others, in a very studious way, talking to the dressing room mirrors. I said it was too late for that, it’s either going to work or it’s not, and got some weird looks given there were still about 5 hours before my slot. But there was no way I could cram any more in.

Somehow it worked out — you can watch the talk if you desire, but please keep in mind everything mentioned above — it felt more like luck than judgement on the day. If you don’t fancy watching, the script and slides are available on Medium too.

And for some reason, it kind of worked out. I fluffed the talk a little bit in (in my own mind, although apparently nobody noticed it) — but as with anything like this, it flew past and you forget all the work that went in.

Despite the rehearsing, something I never normally do, the only time the talk went to plan was the real one. Every single rehearsal saw a section skipped, mixed up, or simply delivered as total nonsense.

As it happens, one of the fellow presenters who decried my lack of late preparations, went on stage and forgot almost his entire talk — so if that’s vindication or proof that everyone’s different, or nerves can catch anyone despite good preparation, so be it.

On the day it was so nerve-wracking I didn’t even bother with the (apparently excellent) speakers’ lunch — opting instead for a walk round the block and some fresh air. And there’s nothing worse than sitting in the darkened room at the side of the stage, miked up waiting to go on.

Nowadays it’s basically my job to speak in public a lot of the time, and this TEDx undoubtedly set the tone for how I do it now. I probably still prepare less than I should, but there’s some comfort in being able to deliver a talk within the TED parameters, and not totally foul it up.

The one lesson I’d take away is, if the other presenters are going into topics such as rewriting the works of Shakespeare, or reporting on genocide, or saving the world from poverty, it probably doesn’t pay to stand up and tell a few gags about pies. But it’s up to you… But before I go — here’s one, “Jurassic Pork”.

“Pie-nosaurs 2: Jurassic Pork” from Pie Nation

Originally published at on July 10, 2017.

CEO, The List. Man of many employers; some of them happy. Board member, advisor, small investor and mentor.

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