How to keep from freaking out when preparing a talk

December 13th, 2018

A client came to me this morning saying “I’m horrible at memorizing. I can’t do it. I’ll never be able to be a speaker because I just can’t remember what to say! I rehearse and rehearse and still my mind comes up blank and then I freak out cuz I’m never gonna learn this talk.”

And well, let’s just say it’s not the first time I’ve heard that.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks people report that erodes at their confidence when they’re speaking is feeling NOT READY. Not totally knowing their content. Winging it. Being scared of forgetting. Being scared that their scared-ness will make them forget.

Yeah, that.

If that’s you, I get it. That’s worthy of some frustrated grumbling.

But here’s the thing–when you practice, there’s a good chance you’re practicing WRONG.

OK “wrong” is a strong word, but you’re probably not practicing in the best possible way to really learn the talk, to know it in your bones, like the back of your hand, like brushing your teeth, like riding a bike.

So here goes. Tips. I’ve got 6.

1) Stop calling it memorizing.

You’re not memorizing. Please don’t memorize your talk.

When you memorize, you’re memorizing a script that you wrote. It’s like the script is on the roof of your brain and it serves as a thin veneer between you and your audience, which means you’re more connected to your script than to your audience. You probably feel pretty robotic. Your audience will likely experience you as robotic, rather than easeful and connected.

If you’ve “memorized” your talk, you gotta go right back to the same spot you got lost. If you can’t find that spot you’re doomed. It’s easy to get derailed and stumble around to find the rail but never find the rail again and then crash and burn. (yikes!)  

So let’s just start right off the bat with changing the language around what you’re even doing. Don’t memorize your talk. Learn it. Know it. Get it in your bones. But please don’t memorize it.

2) Speak don’t write your talk

Written language is different than spoken language. You speak way different than you talk. So even in the process of crafting your talk, I suggest doing what you can to not get stuck in a deep editing process through writing.

Write to generate ideas, write to document what you said while you were on your feet talking, write to see your talk out of your head and on the page, but don’t stay there too long. Get back on your feet speaking your talk at every turn.

Here’s how I do it:  

I speak my talk as I create it. Then write down what I said. Then speak it again. The re-arrange what I’ve written to match what I actually said. I go back and forth this way from writing to speaking to writing to speaking and when it comes time to “memorize” my talk, I ALREADY KNOW IT.

I know, we’ve all got different ways into our creative voices. If yours is writing, great. Do that. But don’t do it without repeatedly getting up on your feet and speaking your talk, too.

3) Practice in Chunks

Don’t try to run through the whole talk at once until the very end of the process. Practice and drill in chunks of content. Practice the opening over and over and over again. Practice the stories you tell, each on its own. Chunk it into sections and practice each section. Practice the close. Practice the Call To Action. Practice the offer.

Practice each section until you get it. Really get it. Until you can do it with ease as if you’re doing it for the first time.

4) Identify guideposts for yourself

When you practice in chunks, the guideposts will naturally reveal themselves. These are specific moments in your talk where you KNOW the content, moments you can return to with ease.

With clear guideposts, when you do lose your place, or forget, or freeze, you have a specific place you know you’re going to return to and pick up from there.

5) Don’t stop to look at your notes

When you do get around to running the whole talk, RUN IT ALL THE WAY THROUGH.

When you forget what’s next, don’t grab your notes. Just hang out there in the not knowing and see what comes. Keep speaking. This will train your brain to stay in the moment. It’ll train your brain NOT to be wedded to the notes, but to think for itself in the moment and help find your way through this gap.

After you run it all the way through, go back to your notes and double check what you left out. Find the place where you lost track and drill that section again. And again. Then when you do another run through the whole thing, do it without notes. Again and again.

Your brain will stop relying on the notes and start awakening the muscle of remembering.

5) Let go of your blunders and move on

Leave something out? No problem.

In fact, there’s a good chance you will leave something out. That’s ok. A talk is a living, breathing organism. It will change and grow with each audience, with each delivery of it.

So when that happens, keep moving on. Stay with your audience. Stay in the flow of your talk. Circle back if you can, but if you can’t find a way, let it go and trust that was you do say is enough.

When you leave something out, and you don’t remember till after the talk, I promise it will be something really brilliant. The best turn of a phrase. The crux of your talk. The thing that was going to be the cherry on top. The most awesome thing ever.

That’s ok too. Say darn (or use stronger language if that’s your style) and don’t get hung up on it. Just tag it, drill that spot again, and next time you won’t leave it out.

If you do, then you might reconsider whether it was actually meant for this talk.

6) Change the story of what’s happening

I talk a lot about how stories are powerful. The stories you tell yourself about what’s true about you are just as powerful as the stories you tell on stage.

While you’re rehearsing your talk, you’ll forget stuff. Your patterned thinking might say “S#$%! F*&%! D*$%!! I’m an idiot! How come I keep forgetting right at that spot?! Erg. This is hopeless. I give up. I suck at memorizing!”

So right there, change the story. When you mess up or forget, say thank you. Treat it as an opportunity, not an obstacle. A doorway to deeper knowing, not a problem that needs to be fixed or a character flaw that you have to contend with.

Take a breath. Tag the moment. Practice & drill it again. Keep going. This, too, will train your brain that it’s doing good, difficult work. It’s flexing the muscle of finding its way through.

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