I gave a speech the other night. It’s the second public speaking event I’ve had in the last few months. Well, last few years, really. The pandemic meant that, even when I did a presentation, it was virtual and, somehow, simpler. It has been interesting to do something again after having fallen out of practice.

The first opportunity I had was a keynote at the AALL WestPac conference in Reno about a month ago. It was a professional opportunity that arose about the same time I was moving to California to take up a new job. I was a bit reluctant. I had not done a keynote before and I felt both the pressure of the person speaking and also of the organizers not to lead off their conference with a dud.

The more recent opportunity was a much shorter speech as part of a larger event. I ended up following a lot of the same steps. But, because of the different content, role, and length, and from having done the keynote, found a higher comfort level.

The idea of doing a keynote ran into my feelings about what I’m good at and what I’m not good at. I’m very confident when I’m talking about how to do things: instructional, how to. I’m less confident through lack of practice and experience at doing more persuasive, large idea arc presentations. I really don’t like talking about myself and the keynote was going to take me into my personal story if I was going to be successful at drawing parallels to the access to justice issues I wanted to touch on.

The keynote was a great opportunity to stretch. And it pushed me right up to the edge of how uncomfortable I wanted to become in order to grow. There’s nothing worse than speaking to an audience and having them not get your message or, worse, for you to flop as a performer, marring both the message and the experience.

If you’re like me, you are far harder on yourself than anyone else will be. There’ll always be that one guy. A parent came up to me after a 9th grade wind band concert and remarked on a flubbed note I had in a solo. I don’t remember the piece but I remember everything about the criticism: whose dad, the parking lot, where I sat on the band riser, etc. I would put money on the fact that I’m the only one who remembers. But most people want you to succeed, can imagine how they’d feel in your shoes, and also have a wide range of interest as well as empathy if things don’t go quite right.

‘Rithmetic, Writing, and Reading

The keynote presented a couple of challenges. For one thing, I would not be using a presentation deck to impart information. I ended up with a short one just to help anchor the audience, in my mind, to what I was saying. It was also 75 minutes, which is a long time to talk. The second speech was only meant to be about 5 minutes and was much more manageable.

To no surprise to regular readers of this blog, I learned that you can speak, in a slow and clear way, about 140 words a minute. The math, then, was 75 x 140, or about 10,500 words. I want to be clear that I was not aiming for a word count. But I mostly communicate in written words and had no idea how long a 75 minute speech might be.

I learned public speaking in high school. The course was called Argumentation and it was a bit like a debate class. But it was mostly focused on learning to speak clearly with few notes in an organized way. It was frankly more useful than any equivalent experience I had in law school or elsewhere. The key was not to write out what you were going to say and read it, but to use an outline of sorts.

In this case, though, I didn’t have anywhere near the comfort level to outline a long presentation. I ended up writing out my keynote and largely reading it at the conference. If you’re curious, here is what I wrote and is pretty close to what I delivered.

Whether due to anxiety or lack of recent experience, I was not confident that I could use my normal approach. And I had absorbed the many warnings not to read your speech or presentation. But I was persuaded, perhaps because I needed to be, that reading is not the monster it is made out to be.

If I’m entirely frank, I’ve seen lots of people read their presentations when they read their PowerPoint slides. And I find that frustrating, as an audience member. I didn’t want to be in that position.

I ended up writing out both speeches. If I have the opportunity to speak publicly again, I’d do it again:

  • writing out what I was going to say meant that I could create specific turns of phrase. I’ve talked about how I do this for TV interviews. This is not something I’m confident doing off the cuff.
  • reading out my presentation during practice meant that I could see what phrasing worked and what didn’t. What word combinations did I trip over? What phrasing didn’t work the way I wanted it to sound?

I have a strong memory in certain areas – especially for remembering negative comments from 9th grade band, apparently! It means I’m also able to start to retain key phrases and whole chunks of content in my head. Once there, it’s easier for me to speak and improvise using those chunks as anchors and without recourse to reading.

It was perhaps more important for my short speech that I had most of these key messages as tightly prepared as possible. I did not want to waffle. I was giving a very short speech in a tight schedule that has, in past years, gotten wildly off track. I was speaking to potential donors to our law library’s foundation. It meant that messaging mattered much more than it would for the keynote, which was more thematic.

The keynote followed an arc, and writing it out helped me to make sure the arc made sense. For the foundation donors speech, I ended up spending most of my time refining just one or two areas. Perhaps maniacally, I worried about word choice: sense of need but not of calamity, call to action but without being plaintive, that sort of thing. If you’re curious how it ended up, here’s the text I used.

The one thing I didn’t want to do was improvise myself into something I regretted saying. I may be more wary because of my public speaking in connection with my brother’s hostage detention by Russia. But even recently, I heard someone speaking without notes say something terribly condescending about another professional. They were meant to be elevating the other person but their lack of preparation meant the other person was demeaned.

In particular, whether you write something out to read or not, you are going to have to rehearse it out loud. If you’ve written out what you want to say, it can ensure you say what you mean. Additionally, speeches and presentations come in a variety of lengths and purposes. Your word choice and delivery will impact your success.

The Delivery Boy

One thing I can’t assess is whether I did enough preparation or not. It’s a bit like research. You can always practice more but will it matter? I am relearning what that threshold is. I was less confident when I gave the keynote. I felt more confident with my second speech, although it was magnitudes of difference in time and content. I think I did enough preparation both times but it’s hard to be sure. I would still do things differently, despite my general comfort with outcomes.

I was not happy with the keynote presentation, although I received positive feedback from the attendees. Some of that is personal, that I’m hard on myself. But it was also a very different kind of presentation for me. I don’t have anything to really compare it to.

That’s something to keep in mind. I still remember the physical feeling of giving a solo presentation at Computers in Libraries in 2001. And, afterwards, someone giving me really high praise for the presentation – not the content! – and how impressed they were. It means that I have an example of externally measured success and I can recall what I did to achieve it. When you are doing something new, or perhaps new after a break, it can be hard to find those markers to help you know whether you’re on the right track.

You can focus on the things that you know went right. I felt like my speaking speed was good, that I was able to make eye contact with the audience while speaking, and that I was able to leave my script and return to it, improvising, without too much delay finding my place again.

I would assess my shorter, more recent, performance as meeting my expectations better than the keynote did. I was able to read less, there being less to read, and focus more on the audience. I had word-smithed the text enough that I was confident that I would hit the right notes.

For a brief time, I considered proposing my keynote as a AALL annual conference presentation (not a keynote). In the end, I lacked the confidence that it was something I wanted to share again. It was a great learning experience and I think there’s a kernel of a really interesting presentation within all of that waffle. But, content or context, I think it’s something I’m better off having done the once.