As long as I can remember, I have loved to give toasts. It didn’t matter the occasion; it didn’t matter if there even was one. I would find a reason. Imagine the little blonde five-year-old, teetering as she stood on her dinner chair with juice box in hand, congratulating her brother who had spent the afternoon at home in bed. He had projectile puked half-digested Alphagettis on the cutest girl in school with the long, perfectly braided pigtails, and he was a legend in everyone’s mind but his own. Yes, this happened, and yes, I wanted everyone to just shush for a moment so that I could openly applaud him on such a feat.
I don’t do it nearly as often, but I still love giving toasts. And public speaking, for me, shares some similarities with toast making – when that one moment is on you to say something. Something smart. Something insightful. Or maybe just something memorable. And to… well, not to screw it up.
Truth is, as much as I love it, and as much as I think I am my best version of myself in front of a crowd and hamming it up, speaking is the hardest thing I have ever had to (and continue to) do. Some people deal with nerves; some people deal with stage fright or unpreparedness. I deal with trying not to mix up or substitute my words, or sometimes just in finding my words. I honestly didn’t realize this was an issue; I thought it was simply part of “my charm”. It was something I always did, along with a tendency to constantly mispronounce the most basic of words. Towards the end of university, it was something I had to get checked out by a specialist, as it was keeping me from succeeding in the field I had chosen.
Sometimes I made simple word slips. Third year university, I had to give a presentation to our work group. At one point, instead of “organic,” as in organic growth, I said “ orgasmic.” Yes, we have all done something like this before. I think we can all agree that orgasmic is leagues more interesting than organic. And we can probably all agree this isn’t the most innocuous of word slips to make. I decided at that very moment not to be humiliated, embraced the laughter, and improvised by running with the tangent – somehow being able to bring the climax back in context to the topic at hand. It worked; at least it worked for me, according to my grade.
This speech quirk was casually diagnosed as a mild case of anomic aphasia. Typically, language impairments of this sort are a result of some kinda trauma – stroke, head injury, etc. I was pretty sure I didn’t have a traumatic brain injury because I would recollect that, right? (Or then again, maybe I wouldn’t?) And I went through all of the processes to ensure that it wasn’t actually a tumor putting on the sophomore 15 in the space reserved for my brain. After nothing was found and nothing found to be conclusive, the problem was identified and the closest description described as a subtle case of aphasia. I don’t call it one thing or the other, as it can’t really be categorized as one thing or the other – at least not right now. Some therapy options were suggested, some of which I followed through on eventually and still do, but it’s not something I could solve as much as I wanted; it was only something I could continuously work on.
When it is severe, though, it can be pretty bad. I will reverse words (“itch that scratch”); I’ll talk around the object I’m trying to find the word for; and sometimes I’ll just avoid the word if I know it’s going to give me an issue. I find a lot of solace in writing as it is often where I feel I can communicate best. Part of the problem is that my mind runs at a different frequency and pace than my mouth, and my mouth is always trying to keep up. Does this make me incredibly self-conscious, particularly in some social situations? Sure. Do I enjoy when someone imitates my lisp, thinking they are being funny? Nope. Do I let it stop me? Nah.
When it comes to public speaking, this becomes problematic for many reasons. Firstly, mixing up words on top of a lisp that can be fairly pronounced just means I can come across incredibly inarticulate. Inarticulate is often equated with being uneducated – or lacking knowledge. And as a speaker, that is the last thing you hope your audience will take away from your talk. For me, it is a very real fear – add that on top of general nerves, or natural insecurities about presentation flow or content, and I’m often shocked I manage to speak at all.
The thing is, I do manage to speak. And often, I’ve never been happier than standing in front of a bunch of strangers, sharing my work or, more than likely, my opinions… but I had to find strategies that worked for me. And the ones that do tend to be the things everyone tells you not to do. The best practice isn’t the one that everyone subscribes to; it is the one that works for you.
I avoid rehearsing.
I am not sure how I managed to do this, but when it comes to timing, I rarely go over or under the time allotted. I can look at my slides and estimate time spent on each with reasonable accuracy. I know that most people go over their presentation several times, getting their timing right, practicing what they are going to say. I can’t do this. When I do, I end up focusing too much on exactly what I am going to say. Memorizing what I am going to say becomes problematic – my mouth can’t keep up to the annoying marathon runner that is my brain – and it means I am way more likely to mix up the words or stumble on them. The moment I stumble, it is all downhill from there. Put simply, memorization is the devil for me, and anything scripted is a one-way ticket to failure.
I always know what I want to talk about and I might know what I want to say, but I rarely know how I am going to say it. Some people have called this “winging it” – but let me assure you it is anything but. I am better with a framework, rather than a process or a playbook. Using a framework for my talk means that I am less likely trying to keep up with my brain; less likely to forget words, switch words, misuse analogies, or just generally bastardize the English language as a whole.
I start with an outline.
I start a presentation by creating an outline of the points I want to touch on or discuss. Sometimes I’ll go into the type of detail that would make someone with OCD tendencies proud, and sometimes I will just keep it to a high-level thought process brain map. I’ll do this as a simple Word doc, and it’s something I’ll likely share with others to get their thoughts. Then, I’ll spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out how I want to present the content. It might be big vector icons and animations. It might be video clips. It might be images that appear to have no real connection to the content, until I make it while speaking.
I speak to visuals.
I rarely have lots of content-heavy slides – I avoid bullet points like the plague and if there is going to be any text on a slide, it is going to be the point I want people to take away at that moment, all summed up. My presentations on their own, without me speaking to them and posted to something like Slideshare, make very little sense.
As an audience member, the presentations I enjoy most are the ones where people aren’t reading their slides. I can read, I am capable, I am here to see you represent your thoughts, your take, not necessarily read your notes. Of course, I am referencing the one person who has sixty slides that are purely bullet points. Somewhere, in some not so distant land, kittens are being punched each time a speaker brings out a laser pointer to help read a slide.
In some ways, I treat it like a nerdy version of stand-up.
The fact is, you will never please everyone in the audience. Diverse audiences means diverse expectations – so the takeaways for people will inevitably be different. For me, I typically aim to do one of two things: 1) educate or 2) entertain. If I happen to inspire, that is more of a bonus to me than anything. I approach presentations with these two things in mind; my hope is that I can teach someone something – a new skill, a new term, a new way of thinking about things, a new perspective. And if I fail on that front, I hope that it was at least entertaining. If I can manage to do both – I’ve been successful. Again, this isn’t for everyone. But it works for me, because I am better off the cuff where I am less likely to mangle every word that comes out of my mouth.
A presentation without personality might as well be a condo timeshare pitch – none of us like to attend those, and for the most part, none of us like to give those.
The best practice, is the one that works for you
Despite the massive amount of material on how to give a good presentation, the tips are good only if they work for you. You can’t be afraid to try out a format or approach that isn’t the norm. If it appeals to you, it surely will appeal to someone else – and that is half the battle won. The hardest part of presenting is making that connection to the audience, where you evoke something because you have made yourself relatable. Once you have made that connection – whether you come across as inspiring, insightful, endearing, whatever it may be – that is the moment that you have the audience’s ear. Be yourself, do what works for you, and your presentation will inevitably reflect that.
Yes, I mix up and forget words all the time. Yes, it is something I have worked on, whether it be speech therapy, social strategies, or just simply remembering to breathe and never read from my notes. There are going to be things that might trip you up, too – bright lights, someone talking way too loud in a corner, the dreaded “technical difficulties.” You can’t change what you can’t control, but you can find ways to help you deal with it and enable yourself to be exactly who you are.