Planning and Giving a Speech in Three Hours

Scott Guthrie (head of C+AI where I worked) always wears a Red Polo when speaking, so figured I'd include that somewhere here

Image: GitHub, Inc. All rights reserved.

I wanted to recap my experience of deciding to give a talk three hours before it happened.

Background

At my recent internship with Microsoft, my division put on a conference just for its interns. During the event there was a “lightning talks” section, where any intern could volunteer to give a five minute speech on anything (and they meant that, people talked about things ranging from their love for Survivor to why they hate JavaScript). Though they had sent out an announcement earlier about it, I didn’t really consider doing it until the opening when they mentioned there were still slots left. I’m honestly not sure what made me want to do it. I have given dozens of presentations before, but they’ve all involved much more planning and were never in front of this large of an audience. Maybe I just wanted to see how well I’d do given the challenge.

Planning

Because the conference was back-to-back presentations, I didn’t have a lot of free time to plan (I did my best to work on it during breaks to not miss anything). But I knew the presentation I wanted to give should:

  • Be something “human”
    • Like impostor syndrome or dealing with moving away from family
    • It’s a little more impactful (and relevant for a diverse audience) that talking about a cool C++ trick (not that that is bad, just not what I wanted)
  • Be structured like a story
    • Beginning, rising action, climax, resolution
  • Be related to computer science
    • So everyone could connect to it
  • Work within the constraints
    • No Power Point, five minutes or less

I thought through things I’ve done related to computer science that I might have a unique-ish experience to talk about (so it might be more interesting to listen to). The biggest one of course, was starting the Open Source Club. So I went through some of the things I learned while starting the club, and decided that my “failure to recognize failure” (I’ve covered this in a previous blog post if you want to find out more) was a good candidate.

Now that I had an idea I grabbed a couple napkins and tried putting together a basic structure to my speech, highlighting the points I wanted to get across. I went through a few revisions before deciding on the structure, then began to try to fit everything together with actual sentences in my head. From past experience (and I’m sure others have similar experiences), I know things can sound different between what’s in my head and what comes out of my mouth, so I made sure to review each part enough that it would sound decent. The goal of this wasn’t to memorize anything (I can’t do that normally, let alone with the circumstances), but to make it feel more natural to tell the story while not forgetting the key points.

I could feel my pulse rise whenever I started mentally practicing. I was definitely nervous.

Giving It

Three or four people went before I did. They made it a hard act to follow. Seeing a hundred or so people looking up at me once I got on stage was more than a little nerve-racking. I knew I needed to just rip off the figurative band aid, and start speaking before it got too overwhelming. I started with a joke about not having a Power Point (humor is my way of lowering tension) and jumped into it. After thirty or so seconds of going I got into a groove, and focused more on giving the speech than all the eyes on me. That made it easier to keep going, and it stayed pretty fluid (with one or two minor pauses when I recovered from a word slip up or had to recall what I wanted to say). I did stumble a little during my conclusion, by not having a concise way to end it (apparently practicing the beginning of the speech a lot, meant I neglected the end). But I mustered through and finished.

I’m not particularity a fan of receiving applause, but I really enjoyed the sense of relief I got as soon as I got off the stage and sat down. I had accomplished something that I was afraid of doing, and other people seemed to enjoy it.

Conclusion

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend giving every speech without practice or much prior planning, but I would recommend doing it at least once. With the pressure, I was able to synthesize down what I wanted my speech to be about very quickly and come up with a focused premise and plan. Normally it takes me a while to come to a decision like that.

It will be worth remembering the way my nervousness got better once I started. Hopefully, it will help me with any future talks I give. It was also nice to know that other people were going through the same experience as me.

I’m very glad I gave the talk. It felt satisfying to do, and has made me more willing to do presentations with bigger audiences in the future.

Till next time,
- Matthew Booe