Comparing notes on speaker preparation

Jeremy Zawodny describes his method for preparing talks and asks:

If you end up speaking in front of audiences on a semi-regular basis, is your preparation experience anything like mine?

My process used to be what Jeremy describes — composing slides — but now it’s turned into something completely different and quite surprising to me. As I discussed here, I’ve finally trained myself to use dictation effectively. I’ll go out for a long walk, like two or three hours, and dictate a rough draft of the talk. I’m not able to do that continuously, I have to stop and think and start again, but I turn the recorder off during the think time so when I’m done I’ve got something approximating what the talk will be. Then I go for another long walk and listen to what I recorded, making notes about what slides to use. For last week’s talk I didn’t take those notes in audio form, I scribbled them down while walking, but next time I’m going to go back to audio capture. If you distill the long narrative down to short titles or phrases, it’s quick and easy to listen to a spoken distillation and write down the titles which become the armature for the slides.

The obvious reason why this works is that speaking out loud is good practice for speaking out loud. One of the subtler reasons is that exercise and fresh air really help. Another is that when I’m away from my office and can’t fiddle with a computer or look things up on the web, I have to literally think on my feet.

As I acknowledged here, I’m indebted to John Mitchell for suggesting this technique to me. According to him, it dates back to “the BBC WW2 radio correspondents, and then Edward R. Murrow.” Thanks again for the tip, John, it’s been really helpful.

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11 thoughts on “Comparing notes on speaker preparation

  1. Since I have a tendency to tangentialize, I have found the serial nature of a slide stack to be restrictive. I have had success using a TiddlyWiki for my presentations – I find it allows me to roll with the audience, changing the path I take based on audience knowledge levels and feedback during the presentation. For an example, see my Ajax Transport Layer Alternatives notes here:

    It’s interesting that Powerpoint is widely derided as an enabler/amplifier of poor presentations, yet very few people diverge from it.

  2. Jon,

    I couldn’t agree more. As much as I wish for a shorter commute, the long ride in the car makes for a great opportunity to prepare presentations, sans slides. I find that I spend much more time finding the right analogies and metaphors when I have nothing but the open road ahead of me. My creativity seems to blossom away from the desk.

    – Troy

  3. While I don’t do talks. I enjoy doing a similar thing while I’m listening to a podcast out on a walk. I can hit record in the middle of listening, take my notes, and resume where I left off. I find it great for remembering those insights I have or names and web addresses I hear and want to look up at a later date. It can also be great for comments I can later send to the producers. If only there were devices and web services that let me do this automatically.

  4. I don’t think I could do dictation in public (on a walk or anything) because I’d feel dreadfully self conscious about it. How do you deal with that?

  5. Jon – I love this idea. There’s something about traveling through space that helps you organize thoughts, since you can treat your surroundings as a sort of memory palace and do your presentation as a walk-through of the landscape you traversed.

    I can only assume that this works well in part because Keene, NH has some pretty places to walk that don’t have a ton of ambient noise.

  6. “do your presentation as a walk-through of the landscape you traversed”

    Exactly right! That’s the other aspect of this I forgot to mention. It’s related to the “songline” effect I discussed here:

    It’s true we have some quiet walks around here, but heck, with a Bluetooth headset you could do this walking around in New York City without seeming weird at all. And the quality of the recording doesn’t matter, you just have to be able to make out the words, nobody else is gonna listen to it.

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