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How to Prepare Your Talk Without Starting from Scratch

You have a big talk coming up. So you say to yourself, I’m going to sit down right now and write it.

You type one sentence: “Good afternoon.”

You delete it. You wonder if you’re a fraud. You wonder why you’re doing this. You wonder what to have for dinner.

Then: Oh would you look at that. I just got an email! I better go see what it’s about.

There isn’t a person who’s ever been asked to speak who hasn’t done this. Not. One.

Myself included. I also delay, procrastinate, worry. Except I have the best out ever. I can easily avoid prepping my talk—I’ll work on yours instead!

As a consultant who helps people identify their messaging and develop their talks, yes, working on yours is a whole lot easier than working on my own. But I also realize that sitting down to a blank page will stop anyone cold.

For most of us, sitting down to “write a talk” from start to finish just doesn’t work.

You’ve got to give yourself something to work with first; think of it as getting a lot of clay on the table so that you have something to shape.

So here are my tips for working on your talk–without writing it from scratch.

First, do a big ol’ brain dump.

Note, this is NOT the same as “writing your talk.” Fact is, you don’t know what you really think about a thing until you express it—it’s in the cognitive act of putting it into words that you give form to the ideas. You may even be surprised about what comes out. I know I often am.

Here are some prompts to use to fuel this writing session. Use whatever ones work for you, or do them all:

  • What I love about this topic is:
  • What frustrates me about this topic is:
  • The thing people don’t realize about this topic is:
  • The one thing I want the audience to walk away with and why:

The only rule is that you KEEP WRITING. If you hit the brakes as you do it, you will not get to the good stuff. Whether you type or handwrite, set a timer for 15 minutes and just write out your opinions and thoughts on the topic—in no particular order. Jot down any stories or scenes or examples that come to mind. But just a quick sketch–don’t get bogged down.

Remember, this is not for anyone to see but you. This blurt onto the page captures your first thoughts, which often prove valuable.

I started my TEDx talk process this way–I tried to get out of the way of my internal editor and just say everything, messy and loose and all over the place. Just to get it OUT of my head. Say the unpopular things. Say the things you really think.

The only rule is that you don’t hit the delete button and you don’t pause to reread or think about it. You keep your pen or fingers moving, even if what you write is nonsense. Don’t judge, revise, or edit. Just get it out.

Now, put it away and don’t read it until later. Let it sit. Like a good stew, those ideas will mingle and marinate and be better tomorrow.

Next: Get it onto cards (or stickie notes!).

Grab a stack of index cards or stickie notes. Whatever you prefer. Think of each one as like a tiny dish to hold a single mouthful of an idea. The only rule: You must do this by hand, with pen and paper, not on your computer.

Here’s why this works: In his book Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon says he has an analog desk, where there is no digital equipment, just paper, markers, and other physical tools.

“The computer is really good for editing your ideas,” he says, “but it’s not really good for generating ideas…The computer brings out the uptight perfectionist in us–we start editing ideas before we have them.

Here’s what to do now:

  • Identify your key ideas, thoughts, and opinions. Go back through your brain dump and pick out the ones you know you want to include. The rule is that each card gets ONE idea; i.e., “Companies overestimate the value of perks,” or “Searching for your passion is a waste of time.”
  • Sift and feel around for examples, stories, or anecdotes that you want to share. And you need several! A talk without scenes or stories is dry indeed. Write ONE story or scene per card. So you might write, “The day I quit my job,” or “what my father said to me”—you know what these things are. You just need a phrase to capture the idea so you can include it in the talk. What scenes do you want to show in your talk? What moments or stories matter?
  • Capture the evidence you want to share. What information will help create the frame and context for your talk? Maybe it’s a few statistics or other things, experts, case studies you want to include. Again, one per card— “Seth Godin quote about how to stand out,” “Domestic violence stat,” or “Client case study: XYZ company”

OK! Now you have a stack of cards, and you will continue to add more. In fact, spend a few days doing this. The benefit is it’s non-linear–so you’re not worried about what you’re saying in what order. Just capture the key stuff and put it in the stack.

  • Shuffle the deck. When you have a solid set of cards, start shuffling them, or put all those stickies up on a wall. Stare at them. Move them around. This is what’s so handy about using cards vs. writing out your talk first: You can physically manipulate them and look at them in a few different ways.
  • Experiment with flow. Move them around, look at them, and see how doing so changes the shape and flow of your talk. This is way more fun than trying to write it from beginning to end, which is too hard.
  • Talk it through. Once you have your cards in an order (and it can change), start talking them through, out loud, as if you’re giving the talk, but you don’t have to be all formal. Do it as if you’re telling someone a story (which, by the way, you are). The talk actually can take shape this way, without having to write down or memorize a script.

Rather than write a script and memorize it, practice talking it through with the cards. You’re not writing for your audience; you’re speaking! So practice speaking. Because every time you do, you’re burning it into your mind and walking those words across your tongue so that they get used to being there. You may never say the same thing the same way twice. That’s ok! You can’t forget your own stories and ideas.

(Tip: Those cards may be a clue as to where you might use a slide. You don’t need a slide for every single thought. Think of slides as a place for the audience to perch while you unpack your idea.)

Boom. You will have a talk on your hands, without blank page syndrome. That’s a win!

3 Questions to Ask Before You Do Your Next Talk

There’s nothing like getting tapped to speak at an event or conference—it’s not only nice to be asked, but it speaks volumes about what people think of you: That you have something of value to share with their community, and they want it.

That said, there are three questions I ask myself before I accept, let alone begin to prepare, for a talk. And it isn’t, “When, where, and what should I wear?”

Nope. They’re questions that most people don’t ask before they dive in, and I believe you should to set yourself up for success. I like to ask the organizer these questions so I get a handle on who I’m speaking with, but also, I use it to generate my own questions and shape my content and approach accordingly.

(This is part of a live webinar I did recently called “5 Steps to a TED-worthy Talk” and I’m happy to share it with you because attendees found it so useful.)

1. Why are they there? 

There are lots of reasons people take a seat at an event. And they’re worth considering:

They paid to be there. If they paid their own money to attend an event, they want something in return, and expect something, right? What investment are they making—are you speaking at a business seminar or an event that’s more lifestyle focused? Are they there to rally together and change the world? Or is this meeting or community more focused on trying to maintain the status quo?

They paid a lot to be there. Then there’s the next level up—I’m talking not $50, or even $500 to be there, but like $5,000 or maybe more. We’re talking fundraisers, high-profile events. Now, if someone is donating that much money to be part of an event, it’s not because they expect, say $10,000 worth of content.

As Seth Godin says, when people pay to be somewhere like that, they’re saying to themselves and each other, “people like us do things like this.” Think about how what you’re about to tell them affects or touches their vision of the world, and their role in it. Especially if they’re there for a big cause, a pioneering effort, or perhaps something less grand but no less expensive.

They have to be there or else. Perhaps the group of people you’ll address have to be there because it’s their job, their managers mandating it, or it’s part of their own training and required.

I won’t purport to know what every group of required attendees thinks when they walk in a room, but that’s why it’s worth asking. Is this an event that’s highly anticipated, or deeply dreaded? Do they have high expectations or the lowest of low? This is how to gauge your own approach. Often I’ve found people who file in with zero expectations are sometimes the easiest to delight.

2. Why did they pick you?

The people who hired you or invited you to speak have their own goals and objectives, and they’re not necessarily the same thing. Do you know why that is? (And it’s not just cuz you’re awesome, even though you are.) I once spoke at an event of full-time employees in the HR business, and I was told, “We want you to motivate them enough to love their jobs, but not to leave.” Good to know.

Ok, so, do they want you to inspire the people there to be empowered and to create positive change? Or do they want you to inspire…compliance? There is no good or bad here, by the way.

We operate under the assumption that they want what’s best for the attendees and the organization. But what that is something they take the lead on, not you. So ask, and listen closely. Maybe they want you to wake them up—or perhaps, calm them down in the wake of organizational or industry unrest. Good to know.

3. Why are you there? 

I mean, aside from because they asked. Maybe they’re paying you good money to be there, and that’s great. But no matter what you speak about, chances are, you don’t do it for the money; you’re there because you want to exert some kind of positive influence, some change or fresh perspective or compelling information that can change the way they think and live.

So it’s important to be clear on your own intentions. Maybe it is a good gig and you do it every year, end of story. You have some contacts there and you like to keep them up.

But maybe this speaking event presents another, larger or longer-tail opportunity, in which you make inroads to do more work with them or to get a foot in the door in their industry.

Perhaps it’s an event in your own industry, and speaking there gives you a bit more clout and attention, and that’s a real plus. All great reasons! Just be clear when you’re going in. Because the way you approach a talk to people whose business you know is quite different from when you’re an outsider. Both have great advantages, if you know how to use them.

Bottom line, be honest with yourself about what is expected of you here, and also what YOU want to get out of it. The purpose and mission that drive your talk may not change, but the way in which you deliver it does, group to group. And the more mindful of that you are, the more powerful and effective you will be—and the more opportunities will come your way.

(Want to learn how to create a stand out signature talk that gets you booked, again and again? Join me for Tapped to Speak, my six-week online program designed to help you land the idea, develop the talk, and wow the crowd. Registration closes Friday, 6/16/17 @ 8p ET.)

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4 Ways to Get Laughs on Stage (even if you’re not that funny)

Of all the people you’ve seen get up in front of a room to speak, how many do you really remember?

Very few. And chances are the ones who made an impact probably made you laugh, too.

Solid content gets a nod.

But funny gets rave reviews.

Funny gets asked to speak again. And again.

Here’s the thing: You don’t have to be a standup comic to get laughs. Or a joke writer. Or a ham.

Quite frankly, you don’t even have to think of yourself as funny.

Some people may are particularly gifted, sure. But other, I’d say most, great speakers get laughs because they work at it; they learn to use humor as a tool. And when you see it that way, you can learn to use it like anything else.

I interviewed evolutionary psychologist and humor researcher Gil Greengross, PhD, for a piece I wrote for Women’s Health magazine. And he explained that humor is not usually something made up by one person and consumed by another; it’s how humans relate. It’s something we participate in together.

“Humor is a fundamentally social phenomenon,” says Greengross. When you share laughter and humor with other people, says Greengross, you build up trust and camaradie with others.

He told me about this study, led by neuroscientist Robert Provine and published in the International Journal of Behavioural Biology, which found that in 99 percent of the cases observed, laughter functioned more as punctuation at the end of statements, in response to mundane statements, and nothing that would be deemed funny outside that context.

Aha!

That means humor isn’t always mass produced by pros—it’s made by hand, in the moment. If you’ve ever tried and failed to explain to someone why something was funny, after the fact, then you know this is true. “Guess you had to be there,” you say. Indeed.

This is great— because it means that you, too, can get great, real laughs in your talk, too.

Think your subject matter is too serious for laughs? Think again. A speaker who deftly handles a difficult or serious topic can actually earn big laughs—because in so doing, he gives the audience the much-needed chance to relieve tension.

So how can you get more laughs on stage? Here are some techniques I’ve used, observed, and put into practice for myself and others I’ve coached.

  1. Don’t try to be funny. (Be honest instead.)  

    You know who gets the most pained pity laughs ever? The person who is trying too hard. Please promise me you won’t do this. Instead, try being just blatantly honest. I know it works because I do it all the time.

    I happen to think that people who are tagged as “so funny” are often just more honest than the next person. They say things other people would filter out. Fact is, I am a speaker who also happens to perform stand-up comedy—but doing stand-up didn’t teach me to be funny; it gave me a forum and format for what I already knew got laughs: Say things other people wouldn’t. I’ve been doing that forever.

    This, by the way, is why a little self-deprecation goes a long way to winning over an audience.

    When you make a comment or joke at your own expense, you’re showing the audience that you don’t take yourself too seriously; that you’re no different from them.

    Because you’re going to appear high status on a stage, taking yourself down a peg or two makes you more relatable as a person. As opposed to an insufferable blowhard.

    For instance: I joke in my TEDx talk (“Stop Searching for Your Passion”) about how I was so down at one point early in my career that I spent every night sitting around in my underwear watching Seinfeld reruns. That got a laugh. Because the fact is, we have all done this. I still do it.

  2. Go for specific over general, every time.
    Note that in the above example, I didn’t say I sat around and watched TV. That would not have gotten a laugh. The laugh comes from the details: you can picture the person slumped there, staring blankly at the TV while Kramer comes crashing into the Jerry’s apartment. It works because you can see it.


    If you say in your talk that you were in such a bad mood and binged on junk food, that’s not going to get the laugh. But you know what will? When you admit that you started hurling unflattering epithets at the Verizon customer service agent while knee deep in a bag of Ding Dongs.

    Don’t just say a thing: Fill in the rest of the picture and include the details that give the scene weight, color, and dimension. The funny is in the granular. Always.We laugh because that’s where we see ourselves most clearly.
  3. Use pop culture references—carefully.
    What makes pop cultural references work is because again it lends specificity. It puts us in a place in time—a specific time, one we all shared and remember and perhaps are nostalgic for. It can get a laugh because it allows us to remember it and we feel included by it.


    My rule is this: Know what purpose that reference serves. Is it a cutting commentary on something happening in our culture? Is it a great comparison to show how far we’ve come or how far we’ve stayed the same perhaps?

    If you’re doing a talk that will be recorded and shared (say, a TEDx talk), you don’t want to make a reference to something or be too dependent on an example that’s exclusive or fleeting because then the talk has a more limited shelf life.

    My rule of thumb is that if you want to make a pop culture reference that isn’t lost on half the crowd or meaningless six months from now, use one that has stood the test of time, meaning, is old enough that people will remember. The more mainstream the better, usually.

    This is why a reference to Duran Duran is going to get more laughs from an adult audience than Drake. (Then again, it depends).  People love to be reminded of where they came from, their shared history, things they can laugh at now.Making just the right cultural reference, be it to older songs or movies, foods or fashions, or something we all used to be into but are embarrassed about now? That’ll get a laugh. Again, consider the crowd and what purpose that reference serves.
  4. Take a hard left turn.

    I said you don’t have to be a comic to be funny, but it does help to take a tip from the pros. I had the chance to study under comic Jim David, a very successful standup who has performed for decades. And he says that comedy isn’t a talent or a gift.He said joke writing is a mathematical equation, and anyone can learn it.

    Jokes are, he said, simply a series of hard left turns. You make the audience think you’re going one way and then you make a hard left; it throws them off, and quite often, will make them laugh.


    You see this technique lots of places, by anyone trying to entertain and engage someone else—so you see it in comedy sure but also compelling narratives and great advertising, novels, horror movies, you name it. It requires that you know what someone anticipates or assumes, and then–surprise!–go in a different direction.

    Think about what your audience anticipates, and then, hang a left when they least expect it. When done right, your audience will be surprised and delighted to be along with you for the ride, and they’ll remember you long afterwards, too. 

Want to learn how to crush it on stage? Join my FREE online training June 7 & 8 – “5 Steps to a TED-worthy Talk.” And start stepping up your game in ways that get you noticed—and booked to speak again.