February 5, 2009

Can you be prepared and still be spontaneous?

I've heard many speakers say that they create their presentation at the last minute, don't practice, and basically wing it, all because they don't want to lose spontaneity. They're afraid that if they practice, they will sound rehearsed or worse, memorized.

Is it possible to be prepared and still be spontaneous? Of course it is!

I'll share my method of preparation just as an example. Each of us has our own method for preparing and practicing, so I'm not saying you should do what I do. I'm just saying that this is what I do and how I remain spontaneous.

Most of my presentations are workshops or seminars, so I'll discuss this presentation style instead of a speech/keynote.

If I'm lucky, I get to research my audience in advance and can start my preparations already knowing something about what their needs are.

I start with a basic outline: an opening, a body with three main points (to begin with), and a closing. I flesh out my main points with sub-points, supporting stories and data.

If I'm creating a PowerPoint, I will often use the story template from Cliff Atkinson's book "Beyond Bullet Points." The story template is similar to a regular outline, but also builds a series of opening and closing slides to set the scene for the presentation.

I usually start this process about two months before the event, if I have that much time. I like to walk away from it several times during planning and not think about it for a few days while it settles into my subconscious.

When I come back to the outline, I start looking at activities and audience interactions I can add to help illustrate my points. I look for the best places to ask questions, to record audience reactions on my flip chart, to break into pairs or groups, and to add any games or fun activities.

I prepare my opening and closing last, after the body feels mostly complete. If I'm unable to research my audience in advance, I use part of my opening to ask questions and learn about the audience. If I'm creating a PowerPoint, this is when I start looking for images.

About two weeks before the event, I start practicing and editing. I make notes about timing, stories, examples, and other triggers that will help me remember what I want to say. During this time, I also collect any props, toys or visual aids I'll need. I cut anything that's too long or extraneous to my main message.

I practice from the outline or bullet points, but I never write out exactly what I'm going to say or memorize exact paragraphs or wording. I know the material inside out, but the outline is what triggers my thoughts. I also don't practice every day. I like to leave a day or two in between practices, so that my brain gets a chance to absorb the content during my sleep and when I'm not actually thinking about it, and I feel fresh when I look at it again.

In the last couple of days, I will practice the presentation three or four times total, making sure I have a time cushion for the inevitable questions and activities that go longer than expected. I don't practice gestures or movements. I feel that those will come naturally in the moment, especially in a workshop or seminar setting where theatrics would be out of place.

I prepare the opening and closing carefully and practice those sections for maximum impact. The last thing I want is a weak opening or a forgettable closing, so these sections are the only memorized part of the presentation.

The rest of the presentation doesn't fully come together until I'm with my audience. After all, a presentation is a living thing. It's a conversation that requires both parties to give it life.

I bring my notes to the workshop and refer to them as necessary, using a document stand off to the side. My notes are never more than one page, sometimes double-sided. With notes, I'm assured that if I lose my place I can always find it again! My notes also remind me to mention things like my newsletter signup or upcoming events.

That's it, in a nutshell. I find that practicing and presenting from a simple outline and giving myself plenty of time to absorb the material allows spontaneity, but the presentation is still well-structured and prepared.

What are your tricks for being prepared but still being spontaneous?

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10 comments. Please add yours! :

Bert Decker said...

Good post Lisa. And rather than a 'but' I'd say 'and.'
Preparation breeds spontaneity. The more prepared you are, the more spontaneous and free you can be in your speaking. Confidence breeds spontaneity too. Not prepared, no confidence.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

So true, Bert. Confidence and spontaneity go together! Thanks for stopping by!

Lucy said...

Hi Lisa. I also believe an outline is essential. It's the springboard to your presentation. Thanks.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thanks for your comment, Ms. Lucy. I like the way you put it!

Anonymous said...

Great post. This is something I work on with clients all the time -- you have to be prepared to be able to be spontaneous successfully. Those who wing it just look like deer in the headlights when something goes not quite according to plan. And since there is no plan, that always happens.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

"And since there is no plan, that always happens." Well said, Nick!

Anonymous said...

Dear Lisa,

Thanks for sharing your preparation process. We have some common approaches and we differ in others.

"Winging it" can be so unpredictable that I recommend staying away from it (even with people who think they're good at it). However, sometimes we find ourselves limited for time or allowed no time (Hey, Ed, we need you in the meeting RIGHT NOW to give us an update...)

I do support using "templates". I call them "frameworks" or "scaffolds" when I'm helping someone with speech planning. You can "hang" a variety of content from them and they add enough structure so that there's some logical flow.

Some of my favorites are:

- Past, present, future
- My accomplishments, challenges and what I'm going to do about the issues (very useful for reporting to Sr. Management)
- Why, what, how, what if (McCarthy -4MAT)
- Here's what I saw, this it what it tells me, this is how I feel about it (Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic)

Nothing can take the place of careful, well thought out planning (and I can see you place a lot of emphasis on this) but having some effective templates to fall back on can be valuable when you are "time challenged".

Lisa Braithwaite said...

I do the same thing with clients, Ed. "Past, present, future" is a good one. "General to specific" is another one I like (or "big picture to small picture"). Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Excellent post Lisa.I enjoy your blog very much and learn a lot from it.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thanks for stopping by, phemeypon. I appreciate your comment!

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