ON WRITING IT
The talk should be somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 words. But don’t worry about writing it. We’re here to help with that. The process usually involves a series of interviews in which we tease out the story that lurks within you. It’s an exploratory process, undertaken with no commitment. And if nothing comes of it, then hopefully we can all still walk away having learned a few things and had a good time.
Most people get freaked out at the thought of having to memorize a whole bunch of words. You wouldn’t know it, because you’re rarely asked to do it, but it’s actually not that hard. The first step is to break your talk into paragraphs separated by a line space, and to title each paragraph. The titles don’t necessarily need to be explanatory. Sometimes it’s better if they are key thoughts or images.
You can make a separate document that just lists the paragraph titles, and review this document until the arc of your talk is clear in your head, so you always more or less know where you’re going. That’s part of where your confidence comes from. Mapping the talk is also useful in that it sometimes reveals a flaw that requires attention—a thought that doesn’t follow, or fat that can be cut.
The next move is to start getting off the page. Reading the talk over and over again gets you nowhere. We once worked with a woman who printed out her talk on huge, bookshelf-sized pieces of paper, in 40-point font, and hung them all over her living space. Somehow she managed to literally surround herself with her talk without ever memorizing a single word.
The single best way to memorize a talk is this: Print it out on regular paper, in 12-point font, then fold it up, put it in your back pocket, and go for a walk. Now try to remember how it starts. You may not remember the first line immediately. Keep trying. Give yourself at least 10-15 seconds to remember each line. It’s this trying that hammers the talk into your brain.
If you really can’t remember a line, then you can always resort to your back pocket. But then you have to start over from the beginning. (That’s the rule.) Keep walking, muttering the talk to yourself, and be sure to keep your head down when cars go by so people don’t think you’re crazy. Feel the sense of the talk as you move through it. This is what you are trying to convey to people. Think of yourself not as a performer but as a messenger with a very important message to deliver. It’s actually not about you. It’s about this message. It is very important that this message be conveyed. Because the message is important. You have to believe in your message. Take a moment and ask yourself if you really do. Because if you don’t, you shouldn’t be doing this.
If there is one line that keeps tripping you up, this could be another clue that something is amiss in your talk. Your brain is a pretty good partner. It will tell you if something is wrong. If you keep missing a line, it’s probably because there’s a gap in logic, or the preceding sentence (or paragraph) failed to cue what follows. This is another way that your talk talks back to you, so be ready to listen. Consult with your editor and get the problem fixed.
ON DELIVERING IT
Once you can breeze through the talk at 2x speed you’re ready to focus more on delivery. Give yourself some space in the middle of a room. Find the imaginary audience with your eyes. You won’t be able to see them clearly (thank god). Nor should you try to. Let them remain vague. Pick out three imaginary audience members, left, right, and center, and alternate your delivery between them.
Now pay attention to your body language. Are you wringing your hands? Are you pacing? Frozen? Are your hands in your pockets? What feels natural to you? Are you uncomfortable being watched? If so, try dwelling in that discomfort for a minute. Let the gaze of the audience rest on you. The audience is like an animal, so you are right to be wary. But this is the kindest, most supportive animal you will ever reckon with. This is an audience of your neighbors, your peers, and they are amazed you have the balls to do this. And because we spent so much damn time working on your talk and making it shine, they will be rapt at what you have to say.
So consider taking the opportunity to make yourself marginally more vulnerable than usual. Ultimately, the stage should feel to you like your own kitchen. The audience should feel like a good friend who’s come over to listen to you complain. That kitchen is yours. You belong there. The importance of what you have to share merits your place on the stage. You are doing a courageous thing, going seriously to bat for what really matters.
So as you go through the talk, listen to your own emotions. Listen for the lines that really count—to you—and then find a way to bring them home. Find a way to share the feeling, the emotion behind your story. Because—and you really have to believe this—what you have to say actually really is very important. (If you have any doubt about this, please revisit the Why Do It page.)
For more tips on performance, see our page on Required Reading.