September 30, 2010

Sometimes it's better not to be prepared

Wait... Did Lisa actually just say, "Sometimes it's better NOT to be prepared?" Are pigs flying? Is the sky falling?

I know. It's practically all I talk about. It's my "thing." So let me tell you a story.

I have a client who has recently decided to "come out" about her epilepsy. After a life-threatening and life-changing event a couple of years ago, she has decided to write a book and start speaking about her experience, to become an advocate for people with epilepsy. She wants the timing to be right, and has some concerns about how people will react, so she is working on her presentation and her book somewhat secretively. Very few people in her personal or professional life know she has epilepsy.

Last week, at a service club where she is a member, she was reminded it was her turn to stand up and give a five-minute presentation about herself and her business. She had somehow missed the notification, so was taken by surprise and had not prepared anything.

She stood up and started speaking. She talked about her business, her accomplishments, her family. And then, it just came out: her epilepsy. She revealed her big secret, without even thinking about it. She talked briefly about the disease and some statistics and shared her passion for the awareness and research organization she supports.

And immediately, hands went up. Questions, questions! Questions about her personal experience. Questions about what they should do if she ever has a seizure in their presence. Gratitude and admiration for her sharing.

Here's my point about preparation. I didn't really mean it's better not to be prepared AT ALL. My client has been preparing to talk about this for some time. She's got all the data memorized. She can tell her own story by heart. She was prepared, deep inside her brain.

However, had she been expecting to talk about this, she would have been anxious. Petrified, in fact. Her two biggest fears about talking about her epilepsy, especially the recent life-changing events, were that she would be unable to give a presentation without crying and that people would perceive her differently, as flawed and damaged, once they knew.

But because she didn't have time to think about it, overanalyze it, or worry about how the audience would respond, her story just came out, freely, naturally, and uninhibited. And the audience couldn't have reacted more positively. (Kind of how it was for me when I revealed my experience with panic attacks. She and I immediately bonded over our secrets.)

I will never recommend that you don't prepare for your presentations. In fact, you should always be prepared to speak (and here's how), because you never know when you'll be asked to speak off the cuff. Being prepared at this level, you never need to feel anxious about speaking -- even when the occasion arises unexpectely; you will always be ready. Can you imagine how great that would feel?

My client's preparation paid off when she needed it most. Will yours?

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5 comments. Please add yours! :

Unknown said...

I guess it all goes back to speaking about what you're passionate about. If you're passionate and know your subject speaking off the cuff can add a authenticity to the presentation and the audience will pick up on that. I get it. Thanks.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thanks for picking up on that, Diane, because I really should have mentioned it! Passion and authenticity can carry a speaker a long way!

Unknown said...


As you know, I'm a big fan of rehearsing.

One day, I was getting nervous and antsy in a meeting with a close colleague. He was taking up too much of my time, and I needed to rehearse a speech for the next day.

He wasn't picking up on my body language that read, "I've got to go!" -- so I blurted out, "Hey, I've got a big speech tomorrow, and I haven't rehearsed yet, so I need to leave NOW."

He waved me off, "You're at your best when you ad lib. Everyone knows that -- except you. Why don't you lighten up?"

Although this comment annoyed me at the time, it gave me pause. Sometimes, we ARE at our best when we're loose. Conversational.

It's no excuse for not deeply understanding the material, but I take his point. A big part of presenting well is adapting and reacting to the audience. It seems that I'm better able to do this when I rehearse the material, but am also loose enough to let it go and be present & in-the-moment for the audience.

I wonder if others feel the same.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Laura, I'm the same way, which is why I try not to practice a presentation the day before it's given. I like to have some space between rehearsal and delivery to allow the spontaneous conversation to happen.

But there's never an excuse not to have your material nailed down!

Paul Tevis said...

I was asked to give a short presentation at a conference last month. I knew the subject well, and I was really pressed for time leading up to the conference, so I was tempted not to prepare any remarks. Then I remembered this post and what you would think if I didn't. I carved out some time to get ready, and things went much better than they would have if I hadn't. So thanks, Lisa, for your imaginary, preemptive disapproval!

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