Thursday, January 7, 2016

Reader Q&A: Over-preparing & last-minute speech changes

In the webinar I did last year with the editors of Tech Speak Digest, one participant said, "I've found that the closer the time comes to the talk, the more clouded my mind gets and I can't stop changing things and second guessing everything up to the very last minute, leaving me feeling completely unprepared even though I've spent hours preparing."

I hear two problems here: Last-minute changes and over-preparing. British Labour party candidate Ed Miliband, who lost the recent UK election, learned the hard way what even one last-minute change could do. One of his advisers credits just that for getting the candidate off-track so much that he forgot to mention a key issue--the nation's deficit--in an important speech. A useful and rare description of how that happened appeared in The Guardian:
On 23 September 2014, Ed Miliband prepared to take the stage at the Labour party conference in Manchester to deliver the most important speech of his career. But instead of rehearsing the speech he had memorised, he was being forced to concentrate on a new opening section, endorsing the proposal David Cameron had made that morning to join the US bombing of Isis in Iraq. 
“Stupidly, none of us had thought the late changes could have an impact on the quality of what he would deliver in the rest of the speech,” one of the advisers most involved in its writing recalled. “My sense is that looking back, it knocked him off course slightly. He started with the Isis passage, and it went over relatively poorly in the hall. He was off his game.” 
“What’s worse,” the adviser continued, “for the whole of the speech, he was improvising more than you might imagine. Ideas dropped from earlier drafts – such as a joke about being mistaken for Benedict Cumberbatch – suddenly reappeared. He was not quite sure in his head where he was, so when he got to the bit where the deficit should have been, he just started a different section. I remember immediately thinking ‘shit’, but I thought perhaps he had shuffled it around because I had seen him do that before.”
That describes the perfect storm of last-minute changes: You lose recent additions or important bits, and discarded but memorized lines come to to forefront of your mind, so you use them.

When your talk is TED-like, delivered without notes and from memory, it's essential to "freeze" your script as final early in the process if you are to have any chance of success in remembering it. Changes made up until the last moment are the enemy of memorization. In my detailed guide to memorizing a talk, I noted that a good rule of thumb is to limit alterations once your script is "frozen" to the fix-it variety, correcting words you repeatedly stumble over or forget, but nothing else.

This approach, of course, requires you to commit to your plan and your presentation up front, and allow yourself time for practice (and in my world, practice does not include editing if we can help it). What's really behind over-preparing and last-minute changes, most of the time? I think it's anticipatory stress, leading to an impossible-to-win effort to create the "perfect" presentation, the one that will answer all questions, cure all diseases, and prevent all naysayers from rising to their feet.

Even more insidious, over-preparing is a constant reminder that you don't trust yourself to give a good talk, and there's nothing worse than undermining yourself, is there? When speakers are over-stressed and over-preparing is the result, I like to prompt them to put down the presentation and go out for a walk or run or yoga class or nap--anything to burn off some stress and get some perspective. I often ask over-preparers to try giving the presentation without so much preparation, and see whether anyone notices. Then we work some easy, evidence-based ways to calm your public-speaking nerves into practice sessions to keep stress at bay.

And now is the time to grasp the difference between preparation and practice. Tell your brain to shut up and let you practice, wherein lies the real key to gaining confidence. If you've practiced--rather than revised--again and again before your talk, by the time you give it, you'll know how it will go. And what better confidence can you ask for?

(Creative Commons licensed photo by the TED Conference)