Messy Presentations

I am reading Messy as part of my 2017 book binge. The current chapter (I’ll no doubt do a full summary in slower time – I’ve currently got a few summaries on the back log) is about speeches.

There have been some disastrous improved speeches over the course of history. There has also been some world changing speeches made up on the fly. “I have a dream” was not part of Martin Luther King’s planned speech. He was renowned for investing hours tweaking his speeches and getting them just so. Yet his most powerful speech delivered was improvised.


High stakes presentations

This caused me to reflect on some of the presentations I have done, about dyslexia and on other topics. When I have a really important presentation to give, perhaps to a big or important audience, I think carefully about the key points I want to land. I consider the supporting facts I want to cover. I create a structure for my presentation (most likely a mind map) and then start working on the slides. I consider supporting visuals and then create a script. I then practice and practice but can never practice enough to remember it all.

My memory is pants so when I create a script for a presentation it tends to mean I end up reading it.  I am not great at reading in public (the horrors of school English lessons still fresh in my mind) and when I read I tend to do so on a monotone.

It is important I think about the script as I have put great care and attention into the order and the way I want to build up the case and the supporting facts.  I need to convey the intricacies I have slaved over while not opening up the side tracks I decided to edit out.

So my most important presentations tend to see me standing like a nervous wreck at the front reading a script. Not quite the vision I have in my mind.

Low stakes presentations

When the stakes are lower the start of the process is much the same. I think about the key points, I think about the structure. I then get a set of 3×5 note cards and write the key points in bullet form.  And then I reflect on the cards when ever I find a spare moment. 3×5 cards are handy as they fit in a pocket so they can be dragged out while waiting in line for a coffee. I can add stuff or remove stuff. The limited space means it’s just bullet points, not scripted prose.

When it comes to delivery I then take my cards in my pocket and essentially wing it. I have my key points on the cards to make sure I cover what I want but the delivery is off the cuff.

I think the results are actually better this way.

Doing it for real

Earlier this year I was at the launch event for an organisations dyslexia network. I thought I was just meeting with those setting up the group to share my ideas and help them get started. It was actually me giving a presentation to a packed room with senior folks scattered around the room and two really good speakers right before me.

With imposter syndrome threatening to spoil the show I sat back and listened to the speakers. I had the points I wanted to share on note cards. These were the same points I’d want to make to the actual audience that was there. This freed me up to tweak what I was going to say based on what came before.  I was able to expand on points the others talkers raised and offer different experiences on some of the points. I would not have been able to do this with a scripted talk.

Extreme improvisation

I once took this even further and attempted to crowd source the key points from my talk. A management team invited me to talk about neurodiversity. Rather than giving a standard talk, I opened by asking what they wanted to get from the talk. I was hoping to get some specifics “we want to learn about tackling poor performance in neurodiverse staff”, “we want to know about factoring reasonable adjustments to promotion process”. I actually got – “can you tall up a bit about neurodiversity”. Neurodiversity is an area I know well and talks to management teams is something I am always doing so it was not a failure I just had to improvise.

Neurodiversity is an area I know well and talks to management teams is something I am always doing so it was not a failure I just had to improvise.

So why don’t I..?

Which leads to the question – if I deliver my less scripted talks better than my carefully crafted ones why do I craft the high stakes talks? I don’t know.

It might be that if a well-prepared talk bombs I can console myself with the fact I put the effort in. If I wing it and bomb it will be clear I under-prepared.

This is something I will have to ponder. Hopefully, the remaining chapters of Messy will offer some insight.

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