Preparing Powerful Words…

I have been speaking in public for as long as I can remember. As far back as middle school I remember having opportunities to speak in front our student body. In high school I had the opportunity to participate in Model UN and attend summer leadership conferences – both of which involved presenting in front of large groups of people. In college, I was a part of a leadership program where athletes from all different sports programs traveled to area schools and spoke to kids about things like working hard, overcoming obstacles and dreaming big. And all throughout my professional career I have had opportunities to speak – from local conferences to TASSP to working with Lead4ward to TASA to TCWSE. With all of this, there is one thing I can say with confidence… I have a LOVE / HATE relationship with public speaking.

I wrote about this relationship on social media a few weeks ago and it went something like this…

From the comments I received from many, I am not the only one. For me, though, it’s not just the comical ups and downs involved in public speaking. I have also really struggled with anxiety around speaking events. I’m talking a full physical reaction where your heart is beating out of your chest; you’re suddenly so warm you can’t breathe; and everything is shaking – from your hands to your voice. Typically it will subside after a few moments. But when you’re standing – in front of a crowd – and they are all staring at you – those moments seem to feel like an eternity.

Having shared that, you can imagine that I have a healthy reverence around speaking. And although my level of preparation may vary due to the kind of speaking event that it is (3 minute introductory remarks vs. a 30 minute keynote address), I do not take any opportunity lightly.

I thought I would share a little about how I prepare for major events. Earlier this spring I had the opportunity to do a TedTalk-style talk and I definitely learned a lot through that experience. Here are a couple of tips I would share with you:

Tip #1 – For those procrastinators out there, you may not like this first one, which is to Start Early. When it comes to major events, the sooner you can determine your content, draft your main ideas and detail out your talking points, the more time you’ll have to refine, practice and polish. You will never have more time to prepare than the day you accept an opportunity to speak. For my spring talk, I had 60 days to prepare. I used roughly 30 to write and 30 to practice. Develop a timeline for your preparation and set goals for where you want to be at certain points prior to your event.

Tip #2 – Start with Big Ideas! There are a lot of “tricks of the trade” when it comes to speaking (volume, speed, storytelling, humor, proximity, etc.), but when it comes to wanting to share a powerful word, the most important thing is what you’re saying! Chris Anderson, the curator for TED, shared in an interview that “Your number one task as a speaker is to transfer into your listeners’ minds an extraordinary gift — a strange and beautiful object that we call an idea.” So I start by thinking about what I what my listeners to walk away with and contemplate what big idea I want to share.

Tip #3 – The next tip is to Build it Up & Break it Down. Once I have my big idea (in my case, that success comes from unlikely places), I start to build it out. One big idea expands into a couple of bullet points which is then fleshed out with a handful of stories to illustrate what I’m trying to communicate. I actually get to the place where I write it out word for word and record it. I do this for a couple of reasons: a) so that I can listen for fluency and time, and b) to help as a tool for practice (it is easy to hit play while driving in the car to help immerse yourself in the ideas and I also play small parts and try to talk through it on my own). The idea isn’t to memorize it word for word but to idealize the perfect talk. Once it is fully fleshed out and the timing is good, I start to break it down, practicing the speech with less and less information in front of me until I can speak through it fluidly with nothing in front of me at all.

Tip #4 – Know how to Land the Plane. I heard this phrase from my #SisterSupt, Dr. LaTonya Goffney. She is a rockstar – and speaks in her role as the Aldine ISD Superintendent ALL the time. Every time she goes into a speaking event, she makes sure that above all else, she knows how to land the plane – how to bring it home so that others walk away with your big idea.

Tip #5 – Find Graphics & Images that help deepen the impact of your message. Graphics can help in a number of ways. Not only can they provide the speaker a visual cue to know where they’re at and where they’re going; they can also make a profound impact on your listener. The key to graphics is to remember that images are often more powerful than words; and that less is often better than more (less on a slide; less slides in a deck). Be concise. Also, remember to focus on your thoughts. One great piece of feedback I received in preparing for my recent talk was to de-emphasize other people’s thoughts and emphasize my own. I used a lot of graphics for quotes that other people said. But one of my listeners gave me a precious gift when she said “those were great; but your words were the most powerful – that’s what I’ll walk away with.” So I transitioned my slides to highlight my big ideas instead. And she was right – it was powerful. I use Adobe Spark to create mine but there are a ton of free and nominal cost programs that can help. Here are a few examples of some of the images I created:

Tip #6 – My next tip is a little Captain Obvious – but Practice, Practice and Practice Some More: With technology. Without technology. With technology behind you. With technology too small to see. With technology that someone else would need to control. You get the point. It’s not enough to say “be prepared for anything” – you need to “practice for everything.”

Tip #7 – Invite an Audience. I know – I’m going there. I’ve said it many times: It is easier to get in front of 200 strangers than to stand before 20 people I know, love and respect. But putting yourself in front of people before the big day is critical. There is something benign about speaking in front of a mirror or in your empty office. When you add the human element, things change. For me, it brings out emotion. Don’t get me wrong – emotion on stage can be powerful. But there is a difference between tearing up or getting choked up for a moment vs. an ugly cry. If your topic is personal, speak it in front of those you love so that you can feel what it will feel like. Yes, I meant to say that – “so that you can feel what it will feel like.” When I brought in an audience, I gave them specific things to give me feedback on. I asked them to check my time at certain points; give feedback on my transitions; and to listen and look for awkward phrases or movements. Come to find out, I moved my imaginary bangs no less than 7 times in my first run-through. (can’t make this up!) πŸ˜‚ But I also walked away with a big dose of confidence that I was, in fact, ready… and that was worth every uncomfortable moment.

Tip # 8 – Be Present & Connect. One of the best compliments I have received was someone who was telling their spouse about what I told her – and then stopped herself and said “us… what she told us.” She shared that I connected so well that it seemed like I had spoken my message just to her. And that is incredible. When we get on stage, our minds often want to think ahead to our next line; our next story; our closing thoughts. But train yourself to be in the moment and to connect with every person present.

You might have noticed that I am missing a Tip between #7 & #8… Those moments in between “I’m prepared” and “I am on stage.” To go back to the opening segment – I’ve got nothing for you. I truly believe you can’t lead someone to a victory you haven’t achieved yet and I am a trainwreck in the moments (hours) (let’s be honest – days πŸ€¦πŸ»β€β™€οΈ) leading up to a big talk. I would love to hear your tips on how to stay calm and overcome the nerves of public speaking in the comments below!

The last thing I would say is this: Enjoy. Every. Moment. Speaking is a gift. It is a platform to share ideas; to change lives. It should be coveted; protected; and prepared for. The next time you are asked to share some words in front of some people – Say Yes. You have powerful ideas to share that can positively impact someone else. Go change the world!

So how did my big β€œtalk” go?!? It was such an incredible day! Here is my talk from the Texas Council of Women School Executive’s Spring Conference: The Unlikely Places From Which Success is Born.

4 thoughts on “Preparing Powerful Words…

  1. I would add having a focus on sincerity. More times than not, this leaves the largest impression and strongest connection – no matter the content. Audience members have a sixth sense that detects sincerity. When I go through the ups and downs you mentioned, contemplate and over analyze my message, it is at that point I take a deep breath and center myself around the idea of sincerity. This is my ground wire. For some strange reason, this focus just makes the words flow so much easier and more naturally. Thanks for sharing! I suspect your post is thematic to all superintendents.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bobby – This is so true! People can see whether you are speaking from the heart or just saying words on a stage. I love the tip about grounding yourself around sincerity before stepping on stage. Thanks for sharing!!! πŸ™ŒπŸ»

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