TalkTips: Last Minute Doubts

It’s inevitable.  At some point in preparing for a talk, often very late in the process, I begin to doubt myself.  Even though I may have spent weeks crafting my talk, rehearsed it to a smooth presentation and convinced myself that all would go well, suddenly that all goes out the window.  I convince myself instead that I’ve crafted a clumsy talk, that I’ve rehearsed it to woodenness and I am only a short time away from making a total ass of myself.

It’s panic time.

Actually, there is no need to panic if this happens to you.  What you may be experiencing is the natural evolution of a developing talk.  As you rehearse your talk, you will develop an ear for parts of the narrative that seem out of place or just don’t ring true.  You may find that the natural rhythm of the material requires that you reorder some of the material. Perhaps you need to work a bit more on  your comic timing.  Or drop the humor all together.

This is all good.  This is why you start early–to give yourself time to adjust your presentation to be the best it can be.  This is why I constantly urge all of us to rehearse a great deal.  It is almost impossible for most of us to rehearse too much.

It is possible, however, to rehearse to the point that you get bored with your own presentation.  When this happens, I take a break and let the talk lay fallow for a few days.  Then, as the time of the presentation approaches, I start rehearsing again just enough to get the dust off of the material.

If you are doubting your presentation and don’t think small tweaks will improve things you may just be bored with being too close to the talk.  Take a break (you started early enough, didn’t you?) and come back to it again in a few days.  Then decide if you need to make changes.

Heeding your doubts can be a way to improve your presentation.  Doubts are only bad when they hit at the last minute.  When hit between the eyes with major indecision your first reaction is to try and change everything.  This can be a very bad thing if you don’t have time to work out the kinks in your new, presumably improved presentation.

When I was in high school, I was scheduled to speak at our band banquet.  After the speaker before me stole the show with a heart-felt, emotional tribute to our band director I panicked, thinking my prepared speech would never stand up to comparison. So I ad libbed. In the process, I somehow managed to suggest the band director’s children were illegitimate! I’ll never forget the look of pure venom his wife shot at me. The lesson is obvious.  Never, ever ad lib.

There comes a point in your preparation after which there is no turning back.  Just like approaching a green traffic light, at some point you make a commitment to go through the intersection regardless of whether the light turns.  And at some point, as a speaker preparing for a talk, you must decide to go with the material you have.  Rather than spend your last time frantically trying to craft a brand new talk, spend it instead preparing the best possible version of the talk as it is now.  Preparation breeds confidence.  Besides, no talk is ever finished.  Chances are you will revisit the talk again in the future.  Then you can tweak it as much as you like.

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