I was coaching a subject-matter expert a while back on preparing for a PowerPoint presentation. We'll call him Carl. I knew Carl hated presenting to an audience, so I gave him several suggestions on how to make the whole process easier and less scary. His comment that he didn't like to prepare too much or write out his speaker notes caused me concern. He said "I don't want to sound too rehearsed, and I know the topic well enough to kind of wing it."
Not a good idea!
I know first-hand how he felt, but after a lot of experience preparing for and delivering presentations, I know that it’s a bad impulse! "Winging it" never creates the results you want, unless all that you want is a lot of mistakes to learn from.
I think Carl's motivation to not write out his speaker notes was less about his confidence in his knowledge of the topic and more about trying to avoid spending too much time thinking about the thing that made him nervous...speaking in front of people.
But the thinking about it and preparing for it properly is precisely what would have helped his nerves and his presentation. I'll be talking about various ways to better prepare for a presentation in later posts, but this one piece of advice I gave Carl has a lot of bang for the buck.
Writing down what you will say has power.
Even if you know your topic well, the act of writing down what you will say does a world of good toward improving your presentation. Even if you don’t ultimately memorize your notes, which is probably for the better, the act of writing or typing it helps at least two very important ways.
1. Writing out what you will say forces you to get specific.
Not only on what you will say, but on how you will say it. What you think inside your head can often seem deceivingly clear, until you try to involve the vocal chords. Writing it or speaking it takes different parts of the brain than just thinking it, so unless you run it through there first, it will usually be a little rough.
If you write it out, you can see specifically what you plan on saying, how you'll say it, and how much or how little you are going to say. Then you can make appropriate revisions.
Crafting the sentences in a conversational style on paper (or screen) also helps you to be more succinct and clear when you speak. It helps you avoid repeating yourself, getting ahead of yourself, and having to rephrase things when what comes out of your mouth is clumsy and confusing.
If you write it out, you can fine tune it before your audience has to hear it.
2. Writing out your speaker notes helps sort it all out in your own head increasing your confidence.
It makes stronger connections to the information in your brain. They say that if you want to learn something well, teach it. This is because in order to communicate to others, you have to sort it out for yourself first, so you learn it better.
This sorting out helps you feel less nervous about your presentation for at least two reasons. For one, you not only know the information, but you have it organized in a neater and clearer package for recalling. And two, putting that much thought and effort into it makes you very familiar with the material and takes the unknown out of the presentation.
The unknown is a main contributor to presentation anxiety. Facing that monster is the only way to deal with it; writing out your notes will turn it into a soft little bunny.
Bonus benefit: Writing out your speaker notes helps you practice your presentation.
When you have your presentation in written form, you can do something that is really helpful when practicing your presentation. You can read it out loud. This is called vocalization, and it helps build muscle memory for actually getting what you want to say, the way you want to say it, out through your mouth.
If you've crafted a desired way you want to phrase something in conversational style on paper, you can practice it, out loud, with repetition. That's something you can't do if it isn't written out. Practicing using a list of topics or keywords simply will not allow you to capitalize on the benefits of spaced repetition - your practice will be different each time and not lead to muscle memory.
While memorizing isn't really good for a presentation (you want to internalize, not memorize), being able to repeat your practice the same way, out loud, really helps you get used to the desired words flowing from your mouth. Eventually, you'll put the written script away during practice, but your mouth will be very familiar with your crafted message. So, why not write it out?
The bad news.
The bad news for Carl is that he wished he had taken my advice. His presentation was somewhat random and long-winded. He later admitted that “Winging it is a lot harder when you’re nervous!” In fact, it is like a vicious cycle:
Having to "Wing" a presentation will make you more nervous; being nervous makes it harder to "Wing it."
The good news.
The good news for you is that writing out your speaker notes will never hurt your presentation (unless you read them), but it will almost always help. It’s worth the effort and extra preparation. And it isn't that difficult. There is a great free tool I use (and absolutely love) to make this process much easier. It is called Evernote. I narrate what I would say about my topic or subtopic into Evernote on my phone, and transcribes it into text. It even syncs it to my computer, so I can edit and fine tune it when I get back to the office. Pretty cool.
So, the next time you feel tempted to skip writing out your speaker notes for a presentation and just wing it, remember these simple words from Benjamin Franklin:
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
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