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Adventures In Preparing A Speech

Today I’m going to tell you how I’ve gone about preparing a speech that will be delivered on august 9 in Minneapolis. My only goal in the preparation has been to avoid a tarring and feathering.

tarred and feathered

Hopefully this will not be me after my keynote address

Back in December of 2010 I got an unexpected email from a representative of the PACER Center. PACER (http://www.pacer.org/) is an organization of “Champions for children with disabilities.” The email asked if I would be interested in talking about delivering the opening keynote address at the symposium on August 9, 2011.

After a couple of brief email exchanges I had agreed to deliver a 60 minute keynote speech, and conduct two breakout sessions of 75 minutes each.

Here’s the twist: when I originally agreed, I was under the impression (still not sure how I got this notion) that I’d be speaking to 150 or 200 people. When I finally spoke with my liaison on the phone a couple of months ago, she said “Oh, at least 1100.”

I have no idea what 1100 people even looks like, not from one side of it. Being bounced around in a crowd at a concert of thousands doesn’t really give an accurate picture of how many people are there.

Now, it doesn’t make me more or less nervous that there will be more people there than I expected. But because they would be paying me, another first, I felt that I had to come up with something special. Today I want to give you a look at how I’ve gone about preparing this address. Then, when I’ve delivered it, I’ll tell you how I think it went.

Step one

I asked questions about the audience. This gave me a good idea of who I would be talking to, their ages, why they come to the symposium, what sorts of questions they are looking to have answered, et cetera.

This was actually my only potential misgiving–that the audience would be wrong for what I had planned. I voiced this concern, she told me I was crazy, and that was that.

Step two

My instructions were essentially to “Get everyone excited for the day. Make them glad they came.”

I feel like I could probably walk in there, tell interesting stories for an hour, and do well. And that’s probably what I would have done if they were inviting me, versus hiring me.

At this point I had a list of bullet points I wanted to hit, lined up in a cohesive narrative. I decided to take each bullet point and write out a couple of paragraphs of narrative to see how it read.

I also thought this would help me come up with more fluid and natural transitions while switching gears or themes.

When I hit 15 single-spaced pages I had to scrap that idea. It was just turning into a piece of prose. I was trying to be more and more clever, revising things that didn’t need to be revised, and things were venturing towards higher-style literary wanking.

But it gave me a better idea of how much time it was going to take to actually cover the ideas I wanted to. I practiced reading what I had out loud. There was much more there than I had time to talk about.

Step three

I spent a lot of time wandering around my back yard, talking to myself while glancing at index cards. On these cards were written a greatly-reduced version of the narrative I had abandoned, and an expansion on the bullet point, with prompts for the transitions included.

This worked well enough. But I had some of the same challenges as when I had been writing the long-form narrative–I found it hard to proceed every time I thought of a better way to say something, or a funny, related story came to mind. I kept saying things I hadn’t planned on saying.

Now, my intention was never to memorize anything except the broadest strokes. That is still my focus. I know myself well enough to know that if I memorized an hour of material, I’d get screwed up if I left out a paragraph, line, or whatever.

I only wanted to commit the outline to memory, and get a lot of practice going through it. But I was still having difficult getting through it in the allotted time, because again, I kept getting sidetracked by myself.

I also had to restrain myself from expanding too greatly on certain things in the keynote. I will only be hinting at certain things that will be expanded on at length during the keynote sessions. Sessions which promise to be a lot of fun if I can actually get people to jump through the hoops I have planned for them.

Step four

I asked a friend at work to let me deliver the speech to her. We went to one of the larger spaces at the library, she sat in the front row, and I delivered it with the use of my brief notes. This forced me to keep going. She had insisted that I not stop and explain things to her, and that kept me moving.

I didn’t even have close to enough time for everything on my notes. I had to abandon at least 30 minutes worth of material. It was a rough rehearsal, but it was the most helpful thing yet. And she had great suggestions that I was able to implement immediately.

Step five

I turned on Garageband in my basement and recorded myself giving the whole thing, with the revised notes that resulted from the rehearsal in step four. Same rules–just keep talking. Don’t second guess, don’t backtrack, just act like you’re in the ballroom at the Minneapolis Convention Center and everyone is staring daggers at you.

I got it done in 58 minutes. I put this on a CD and started listening to it during my commute to work.

Knowing that I finally had it timed correctly was a lot more helpful than being able to listen to it. The reason was that I started memorizing what I heard on the disc, and not all of it was as good as it could be. Once I realized that I knew exactly what phrases I was about to use on the recording, I quit using it.

Step six

Next week I’m going to go into our auditorium here and deliver an actual run-through for a small audience. By this point it is a lot more polished and I feel completely confident. This is because I walk around muttering to myself all day long, focusing mostly on the transitions between those original bullet points.

I could not be more excited for this. It’s an honor to be a part of this organization, if only for a day.

I’m nervous, but not about how I’ll do. I’ll do well, because I love to speak and I’m ready. The nerves all have to do with not wanting to wait. I wish I was giving it tomorrow.

Also, I’m making bookmarks to use as business cards. They’ve got the blog’s logo on the front and a suggested (meaning, I would force you to read these if I could) reading list on the back, comprising a top-20 list that I’d stack up against anyone’s list, if we were in an eclecticism contest.

If you’d like a bookmark, let me know. I’ll probably be charging a dollar. And if you live in the Minneapolis area, I’d love for you to come. I don’t know if they’ve sold out, but registration is only $15. I promise to to deliver one million dollar’s worth of value. Then next time that’s how much I’ll charge.

I’m looking forward to writing the post about how well the speech went. But if everyone hates it and they tar and feather me, I promise I’ll be honest about it. That would probably make a more entertaining post.


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  • Todd July 12, 2011, 7:58 am

    Josh, this is amazing. Great work. I do a lot of teaching in front of small groups 10-20 people. Preparation is definitely the key. When I’ve tried to wing it, I’ve failed miserably. Sounds like you’re really preparing, and that’s awesome.

    Two of the lectures that I’ve attended that stand out, and were by far my faves both included things that motivated the crowd. One was a retired Marine who told stories at the beginning and the end that tied in with his overall topic that was delivered to a men’s conference.

    It’s too late now, but if you ever do it again, it would be fun to see you close with some feats of strength, like bending nails, etc. (if it could apply to topic/audience, of course).

  • Tim July 12, 2011, 8:25 pm

    Josh, I really admire you. If I had to stand up in front of that many people I’d be shaking in my boots.

    I love the outline of the process. So often in the past when I had to give some type of presentation (nothing nearly as important or powerful as a keynote) I struggled with how to come up with a format. The format you’ve laid out could be used for any type of presentation, I love it.

    Lastly, is there going to be some kind of video or audio recording of the speech? I’d love to get a copy if possible!
    I’d also love to get some of those bookmarks. How do we make that happen?

    • Jeanette Swalberg July 14, 2011, 4:15 pm


      I am thrilled for you! I have heard you speak (at the TSA picnic last August). You will do an excellent job. How wonderful that you have the opportunity to reach so many people! The fact that so many will be there says that this is a huge area of need. They will be coming to refill their energy reserves, and be validated that what they are doing makes a difference. They won’t be staring daggers at you, they will be thanking you for coming, and wanting you to do well. Which you will.

      Best Wishes!


  • Lynn S. July 21, 2011, 6:09 pm

    I’m intrigued! I’ll be there, or should I say, I’m here, in Minnesota and I’ll be in attendance at the PACER conference on August 9th. The audience you’ll encounter will be far from the dagger staring/tar and feather type. We are more of the warm fuzzy, smiling, appreciating, nodding, energetic friends that you just haven’t met yet! I can’t wait to hear what you have to say. I’m a special education teacher and all I ever want to do in any day of my life (especially my work life) is to listen, learn, teach and create something in the day that makes it the best day so far! Looking forward to learning from you!

    • Josh Hanagarne July 22, 2011, 11:10 am

      Lynn, thank you. Please come find me and say hi so I know who you are. I couldn’t be any more ready. I just wish it was time!