Before your talk – Be Prepared!

Be Prepared

I was a Brownie and Girl Guide, so the motto was always familiar. It has stood me in good stead.

If you are well prepared, you should be able to cope with most eventualities.

There are, however, essential things to remember about preparation:

Know your subject well

It seems obvious but I have sat through many talks when it was clear that the speaker was not that well – informed. The only reason I managed at my first impromptu talk was because I had recently thought about the subject and made notes. Although I had not brought the notes with me, they acted as an aid to memory and so I was able to mentally refer to them.

Even if you are giving a talk accompanied by slides of your holiday to, for instance: Peru, Antarctica, China, giving a presentation for work about the latest sales figures or enthusing about your hobby, make sure you have a lot more information in your head than you have on paper – the things that you do not say that might require answers on the day. What food do the people eat; how do they keep clean in a difficult climate; what are the consequences of not improving the sales figures; how much does the hobby cost etc?

There is little point in showing a slide of a building if you do not know what it is. Someone is sure to ask. If you haven’t made a note of it, miss it out or if it is picturesque and you still want to show it, admit, as you show it, that you have failed to note its name. Make sure you remove all slides that you have decided are unnecessary. I have been at many talks when the speaker has shown a slide and said, ‘I’ve no idea what that’s doing there; I thought I’d taken it out.’ Ironically, that will probably be the best-remembered slide out of the lot. Run the whole slideshow at home in time to edit it.

The Right Order

In your preparation, get the slides – all the information – in a sensible order, In the case of a holiday tour, this might mean renumbering them. When we went to China, we spent two days in Beijing at the beginning of the tour and two at the end but there is no point in showing the slides in that order. When giving a talk on our tour, I put all the Beijing slides together.

If you are speaking about a hobby, group similar things about it together, e.g. stamps of Europe together, African ones together etc. Hopping about any subject is confusing to the listener and tends to boredom.

Trusting Technology and using equipment.

It is not always necessary to adapt with changing times and technologies. If you are an older person, you can stay with the old trusted ways but, if speaking to young people, it is best to be a bit up-to-date – they might even be impressed! Young people might be familiar with social networking, computer games and perhaps some word processing but many have no idea how to present a subject via the computer to an audience, such as an interview board in front of them. An older person who has this knowledge can show how it is done. Do not be afraid to attend a computer course, especially one specialising in PowerPoint or the Mac equivalent: Keynote. They are valuable tools in giving talks, especially about travel but you do need to be sure of what you are doing if it is not going to be a total disaster.

If you intend using technology of any kind, make sure you inquire about the facilities at the venue. You do not want to arrive on the day to find that there is no free socket anywhere near the front. You might need a very long extension lead. Is there a screen? How much of your own equipment do you need to bring? Do not assume that even a work situation will automatically include everything you need. Are there blinds at the window or will you be competing with the sunshine?

Make sure that you understand the technology and, if possible, use your own equipment that you are able to practise with beforehand. Set up the presentation well in advance and rehearse.

NEVER assume that it will be all right on the night/afternoon/lunchtime. Technology has the habit of being unreliable, whether because of a failed light bulb, faulty socket or an accident on the way. It simply might not work but if there is an audience waiting with anticipation, they should not be disappointed. It might sound crazy to say that you should always be prepared to give the same talk without the planned technology but it is good to be able to do so, even if is a shorter version and I have known some instances when the projector is used because it can be and not because it enhances anything.

Arrive early at the place of presentation, set up the equipment and test it. If you are showing a slideshow or PowerPoint presentation, get the first slide on screen and leave it ready to go. Do not think that you can switch on after you have been introduced and expect it all to work correctly.

A few years ago, I attended a talk at our local surgery when the speaker had no real idea of how to work the computer or PowerPoint but had been given a presentation that had been already prepared by a medical department. She had no idea how to get everything connected up and nobody there had any idea either. After forty minutes and a call to someone outside who dashed over to rectify the situation, it was eventually up and running, by which time we were all fed up and some had left. The most annoying thing was that the few diagrams and figures eventually shown were not essential and we could have had a perfectly adequate talk with a few printed pictures on the wall and the relevant information given by the speaker.

Often, it is not essential to use technology and one of the most interesting travel talks I have heard in recent years was one about a visit to Japan when the sights and sounds were so vividly described that, by the end of the talk, we all felt we had been there. Remember to present the subject, not how up to date you are!

If you are giving a talk about a place you have visited, you can tell the audience about the customs, food, local hospitality, difficulties or ease of transport etc. The sights and sounds can be vividly described. This is something that you would have to do if the audience happened to be a club for blind people.

You can always have a few essential printed pictures to put on a board or a wall if you feel that visual aids are necessary and this is also true of graphs and figures for work. If the technology works and you do not need the backup, all well and good but having a backup plan could save a lot of angst and, in the case of a job interview, get you a job. Showing initiative and the ability to circumvent circumstances could well sway opinion in your direction.

Even if you do not use technology, basic equipment should be checked – such as the availability of whiteboards, chalkboards, flip charts etc. It is always advisable to take your own marker pens – the sort that wash off, not permanent ones! They might claim to be provided but often have the habit of walking before you get there, as I have found.

Do not assume that a simple piece of equipment must be easy to use without trying it. I recently arrived at a venue to find the flip chart provided was actually on a white board that had the schedule for the day on it. The flip chart was folded back so this could be seen. At lunchtime I decided to prepare with writing some notes and headings on the pages. I flipped forward one page at a time as I prepared. When I came to give my talk, I discovered that it is much harder to flip a page quickly forwards on a flip chart than backwards and several times risked tearing it. It slowed things down and made me look very unprofessional – which I am, in truth – it was a voluntary talk – but it is good to appear as professional as possible. I have learned a lesson. I also found that I could not fit a poem on the page in letters large enough for those at the back to read. As I had started writing it, I had to apologise for wasting the page.

If you have never written on a board before but wish to do so, it is advisable to get access beforehand to the place and practice, because it is not the same as writing on a small piece of paper. The most common problem is to start writing the line at the top left hand corner and end up nearer the bottom right-hand corner of the board. Thus, the whole text ends up in a diagonal form. If you cannot use a board before the talk but need to draw straight lines, practice doing so on large sheets of paper at home. Novice speakers tend to write diagonally on large boards.

Notes for the talk

Have your notes ready and clearly typed – preferably in a size 14 font with frequent headings. Arial is a clear font but you can use any, as long as it is not fancy. It is embarrassing if you cannot read your notes easily. Make notes in short, clear paragraphs, numbering them or using bullet points that help the different headings stand out. When finished, leave them a while and then read them again. You will note typing errors that, if read out, would lead to embarrassment. Use the spell and grammar checker, for your own sake, as well as your audience’s.

If you do not use a computer or prefer to write your notes, write them clearly, leave them an hour and then try reading them again to see if they seem as clear after a break. If not, write them out more carefully.

Traditionally, professional speakers use separate cards for different parts of the talk but I have seen these dropped and picked up out of order, which leads to great embarrassment and tedium while the speaker keeps stopping to find the right card. Typing or writing on A4 paper is probably best for most people and if these pages get dropped, make sure you get them in the right order before you speak. Number the pages!

If you can speak using just a few notes, you are fortunate but many people need the whole text in front of them. Just make sure that, if you read the whole talk that you raise your head frequently to look at your audience and connect with them. You are not giving a talk to a lectern, the floor or table!

Thoroughly Well-rehearsed Spontaneity!

If you want to try using only brief notes, rehearse well and, as I said before, know your subject well. Rehearse and time yourself. Timing the talk is even more essential when you are doing some apparent ad-libbing, because you should not go overtime by much. I say ‘apparent’ because what you really need to do is to have rehearsed so well that, like a good actor in a play, it sounds spontaneous. You must also make sure that you know how much to say to fit into your allotted time slot.

You must, also, allow time for questions, so do not worry if you have missed something you meant to say because it might come up in the questions. Never try to answer a question if you do not know the answer. Admit that you do not know. If you give false information – someone will find out and your local reputation will be spoiled. Have ready a list of sources where information can be found: websites, books, museums, etc.

I got carried away with a subject once and saw an elderly man nod off and almost fall off his chair. I was never asked back to that group again and I can understand why. The sad thing was that I realised my mistake long before I finished but still failed to bring the topic to a conclusion sooner. Always be aware of your audience. You should become accustomed to sensing if they are with you or not. It is better to leave them wanting more than overhear someone say over a cup of tea afterwards, “I thought that was never going to end!”

Next post – The dreaded microphone!


About Rosemary the Chickerell Chirper

I'm a private teacher of piano, guitar and music theory. I am married with two grown sons who now have families of their own. I have five granddaughters, two in NZ and three in England, including one set of twins. Ever since I was very young I have wanted to write and have had some poems and articles published but would love to complete a novel. I give talks about various things to local groups and play organ and piano at our local Methodist Chapel where I also lead the choir.
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2 Responses to Before your talk – Be Prepared!

  1. Hello Rosemary. This is good. Having spent a number of years providing product training in the kitchen industry I can relate to most if not all of your blog. Of course if one has spent thirty plus years in one industry sector then knowledge can almost be taken for granted – I have never been caught out on my specialist subject – yet! My early presentations – before PowerPoint presentations or even computers were available, were by today’s standards, basic but well received and this gave me the confidence to stand up and speak to 20 or more industry professionals. Getting a rousing applause for my first training session for a large German manufacturer added to my confidence and also underlined my perception of how well I was doing. The key, in my opinion, is to know your subject inside out and upside down, in negative, black and white and full colour – nothing should be left to chance. I stick to stuff I know about and wouldn’t dare stand up and try a presentation on anything I wasn’t 100% sure of. All the best with the blog and the rest of your writing… Alan Lee Ford

    • Thanks, Alan, for your feedback. I must add that I am still learning and still make mistakes. I read some poems out on Saturday but forgot to put page markers ready, so I embarrassed myself by having to look them up while everyone looked on. I’ll not do that again. Don tactfully told me that it didn’t look good. I must improve by next year – assuming I do it again.

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