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How To Prepare For A Last-Minute, 10-Minute Speech

3 min read

Just 10 or 15 minutes, you think. Not nearly enough time to do justice to the topic, but plenty of time to make a complete fool of myself if I don’t organize my thoughts carefully.

Last week I was sitting at the back of a large conference room watching an excellent presentation before about 100 managers at a global professional services organization. As the speech continued, I noticed a rather senior looking individual sitting close by who was scribbling furiously on the back of a piece of paper. It didn’t appear as if he was taking notes on the actual presentation, so I was curious what he might be doing. The speech at the front of the room continued, and several minutes later the presenter mentioned to the audience that he had just invited a colleague to speak on an important topic immediately before the next coffee break. The pieces came together in my mind…clearly the older gentleman next to me was the last minute guest, rapidly preparing the notes for his own upcoming presentation.

We’ve all been in this situation before: minding our own business at a meeting or a conference or a even an office holiday party. Shortly before the program begins, the chairman or organizer sends us a note saying something on the order of:

“It’s great that you are attending this meeting! You know, I was thinking about the plan for the day and it would be such a help if you could speak for just 10 or 15 minutes on [insert topic of your expertise.] I know its kind of last minute, but you’re a master at this material and I’m sure everyone would really appreciate the value of what you have to say.”

Just 10 or 15 minutes, you think. Not nearly enough time to do justice to the topic, but plenty of time to make a complete fool of myself if I don’t organize my thoughts carefully.

You graciously accept (what choice do you really have?) and now, depending on the context and the topic, you have to manage a certain low level of anxiety for the next few hours until the moment comes to give your speech.

As I sat in the back of the room I found myself very curious to watch the unfolding drama before me. (At the same time, I was secretly relieved that it wasn’t me who had been recruited.) When the gentleman’s moment finally came, I was impressed at how well he handled it. Three things stood out, which strike me as worthy of remembering:

1. Prepare your notes—but don’t use them!

There is nothing wrong with writing out your speech. The mistake many people make is to then read the words right off the paper. That’s where you lose your audience. What made this speech work so well was the impression we got in the audience was that he was speaking spontaneously, which lent a certain credibility and aliveness to his words.

2. Paralysis of integrity

Don’t get caught in what an old teacher of mine once called the “paralysis of integrity.” In other words, if you hold too high a standard for yourself with regard to saying it exactly right, you risk losing your ability to engage your audience. Trust yourself and your experience with the topic at hand. You would not have been invited to speak in the first place if they thought you needed your notes!

3. Pretend you are chatting with a friend

The most important piece of advice I give my clients is that the larger the audience, the more important it is to relax and create the appearance of intimacy. Remember, it is physiologically impossible to make eye contact with more than one person at a time—so think of a 100 person audience as a series of simultaneous 1-1 conversations…like a chess master playing many games at once. Everyone in the group will feel that you are speaking to them and to them alone.

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