Learning your lines

So I have this colleague, who does a lot of public speaking. And when I say a lot, I mean really a very large pile of it indeed.

I guess this works too

They have to give a TED talk this week and they’re anxious, because they aren’t sure they will remember what it is they have to say.

I found this surprising, given their extensive experience, but also a bit reassuring: it’s easy to assume that just because someone can make it all look rather effortless, that doesn’t mean it is.

At some level, we’re all like a swan: gracefully gliding across the water, while furiously paddling underneath. The only question is the ratio between the two, but it’s always there.

In any case, it got me thinking about how I’d handle the ‘memorise your speech’ thing, not least because I will have given six of the things by the end of next week.

My first thought is that I almost never write out speeches these days.

I’m not a politician, where what you say matters very specifically (plus I don’t have a team of speechwriters). Working from notes gives more flexibility, keeps the delivery fresher and avoids the ‘I’ve lost my place in the script’ thing [Strong message here].

So already I feel I’m at an advantage: I usually arrive with some bullet points and then work around them to time allocated. Using slides with little or no words on them also helps avoid having to do it all in a particular way.

But equally as important is knowing what you want to say. What’s the core message you’re selling in your talk? If you know that, then it’s very much easier to recall why and how you’re saying that, even if you don’t have your notes in front of you.

And if you don’t have a particularly strong focus, then make one, by using a question or a story to guide you. As a rule of thumb, the thing you’re talking about has some analogy with something else, so why not use that to essentialise the key points?

Finally, even if you don’t have written notes, you can still get cues to help you. The obvious one are powerpoints, albeit with all the usual caveats about this.

But if you’re not allowed slides (or they don’t work), then why not bring a prop of some kind? A thing to hold up or pass around is not only interesting for your audience, but will also remind you of what you’re trying to say.

Do all these things work, without fail?

Not necessarily, so the main suggestion I gave my colleague was to practise, since that’s what the evidence suggests is the best way to improve retention of learning (and thus articulation thereof).

Less exciting than turning up with your bicycle, which you then use as a metaphor for active learning [note to self: I must stop talking about it and actually just do it], but more reliable.

Just remember we’re all swans and that sometimes we have to paddle a bit more furiously.