Fractal scheming – How I plan a talk

I’m plotting out a 5-minute presentation for tomorrow, for an exciting opportunity I’ve been working on for a few days now, and thought I’d share my talk-writing techniques, and what worked to get my mouth unzipped.

I’ve always been pretty shy, and really struggled with ‘public speaking’ and giving presentations. Around 2010, though, I started to find my feet and my confidence, and to believe that I could have something interesting to say (running a making-things club helped a lot, I recommend it!). My most memorable turning point was when in our first week, the head of the Science Communication course invited us to volunteer to give a 7 minute seminar on a topic of our choice. My immediate reaction was to sit on my hands, shrink in a corner and avoid eye contact, so I stuck my hand straight up! I haven’t done much in my life I’d consider brave, but that definitely qualifies. I picked a topic I cared about, and that I could cram a high density of amusing anecdotes into, and knocked the socks off an audience of my peers – getting cheers and even a whoop at the end, and establishing my ID as ‘that Morag that makes all the things’.

That and other talks taught me that I can speak well and fluently for ages, given these factors:

  • A good start – If possible, interacting at the start, eg. by asking a show-of-hands type question, and use that feedback to tweak your talk’s emphasis if necessary. Forcing that kind of attention also helps prevent automatic ‘in front of the TV’ mode by reminding them that you’re an interactive human being.  It also makes your audience a lot less scary – they do what you said, after all!
  • Engagement – Paying attention to the audience, making sure they’re still engaged, and tuning the talk to match that feedback. Being amusing is a good litmus test – once they’re warmed up, I keep throwing out little asides which they can respond to or not, letting me know how they’re feeling about the whole thing. If you get no response at all, you’re not on the right wavelength, re-tune! As long as we keep checking in with each other, I can relax and the words will flow.
  • Flexibility – Preparing thoroughly, and creating an outline of your talk which overlays a thorough understanding of the topic.  Planning out exactly how I’m going to say each thing is guaranteed to make me trip over my words, and doesn’t leave much room for playing to the audience.

My preparation method involves thinking and chatting about the topic with people, writing an outline with my goals for the talk (in this case about 6 words long!) and then chewing over that mentally for a few days.

Once I think I’m ready, I articulate what I want to say by scribbling stream-of-consciousness style on a big bit of paper, in a non-linear series of lists, notes and keywords. I include lots of symbols, underscoring, groupings, outlines, hierarchies, addenda and connecting arrows. Once I’ve meandered down each branching avenue of thought, I review it, highlighting key points and culling irrelevant detail. This process creates a huge structured map of the topic, which I can then crawl, meander or stride across in my talk.

I find that because my memory is apparently very spatial as well as visual, relating topics and points to each other in this way helps me keep the facts at my fingertips when I’m actually delivering the talk. It is also what gives my talks their flexibility – because the information in my head is fractal, I can adjust on the fly how much detail I go into for each ‘area’ – very useful when you run out of time, or when someone asks you to explain something in more depth.

The last stage is to create a compelling ‘story’ of the information – the route down which I plan to lead my audience.  Like telling any good story, you need to have something thrilling and intriguing to start off with, to explore your topic in a logical order, and conclude in such a way as to hammer home your points, and make sure that your audience takes on board your key ‘action points’.  All this is ‘just’ good communications, which I don’t think I can convey in a post, so for now, I’m off to create my route across this map!

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