Being prepared

For fatherhood, for public speaking

My favorite new dad book is called “Be Prepared.” I appreciate the practical tips, the funny sketches, and comprehensive wisdom about becoming a father. Indeed, even though nothing can prepare you for what it’s like, you still should study up and know what to expect.

I’m not a good impromptu speaker. I get nervous and clam up. I can feel the anxiety start to swell as my time in the spotlight approaches. I get a pit in my stomach. My breathing quickens, and I start to have doubts. Suddenly I don’t want to speak anymore, and my mind starts coming up with reasons why I’m going to fail. It takes a lot of mental focus for me to get through those waves of fear. I’ve learned, fortunately, that being prepared is the best way for me to get through it.

The best speeches I’ve ever given have all been practiced, practiced, practiced. Or as Arnold Schwarzenneger says in his autobiography: “reps, reps, reps.” What was true for body building became true for governing and speaking. He rehearsed his speeches like he was training for Mr. Olympia.

My wedding speech was a highlight for me. I loved my speech, and I had it memorized. When I gave it, I enjoyed every minute. I remember feeling like I had the crowd (it was very friendly, obviously) and I was in a very good mood. I felt charming, and I could let that charm through because I didn’t have to worry about speaking. I knew exactly where I was.

At my sister-in-law’s wedding I had a long toast prepared. I thought a lot about it and got my phrasing down to deliver the ultimate impact. It worked; people loved it. Same with my best man’s speech I gave for the guy who was the best man at my wedding. In all of these cases, I wrote them out and had weeks to think about them. I rolled them over in my head and optimized them to the point where I could give them without thinking.

A couple of months ago I gave my first keynote-style speech at a conference. I was a general session speaker, meaning that the conference tracks converged on my talk. I had my deck done weeks ahead of time, and despite a lot of turmoil and distraction at work, I was able to run through my talk several times. Rehearsing an hour-long speech is daunting because it takes, well, an hour, each time you do it. I think I went through the deck and my talking points about five times, and I was very glad that I did.

Another thing I’ve learned is that a good opener is critical. At least it is for me. The opener sets the tone, and it gets me over the hardest part. When I first start talking, I get a little in my own head. I start hearing myself speak, and then I lose focus. After I get some momentum, I’m fine, so long as I’ve practiced. An easy to remember, funny or interesting anecdote to kick things off is the best way I’ve found for me to reach my happy place while public speaking, so I do it right away.

So if I could sum up my speaking advice, it would be:

  • Be prepared (reps, reps, reps)
  • Start strong
  • Do this EVERY time you speak — don’t. deviate

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