A Lesson About Presentation Preparation

Bucket list item #1: Do a TED talk. And…Check!

Last Friday I did a talk for TEDxOU! It was amazing and gratifying in all the ways you would expect – the red circle on the floor, thought leaders from diverse backgrounds with challenging topics issuing forth in unique and inspired ways, opportunities to engage with these speakers and exchange high-level thoughts and some very funny stories.

Now I have taught, performed and spoken in public for many years. Unless I am speaking or teaching a new subject, I don’t have to prepare much. I outline my points and go. This time, however, I felt the added pressure of teaching voice and coaching presentations. I had to be on top of my game.

I began preparing three months ago. I did a draft, spoke it out loud to a friend and found some holes, points that didn’t logically track. I rewrote. Spoke it again – to a different friend. It still felt awkward. I then outlined my main points. Spoke it again to a small group this time – better, but not the pizzazz and ease I was striving for.

Then I thought about the pictures of my talk – what is the picture I see on the introduction? Then I sketched the picture. I am a terrible artist but it did for me what I needed it to do – etched into my brain the essence of the thought. I worked the whole speech picture by picture. I didn’t have to memorize words, because I could always describe the pictures. This allowed me to sound easy, natural, like I was speaking extemporaneously, not like a speaker-bot.

I presented it to the TEDx committee and they gave me several very helpful thoughts like “Where is the statement that says why should I care?” D’oh, that’s pretty important. I filled in that blank. And because I gotten that as a note, I was always extra careful – and clear – when I go to that part.

I rehearsed one last time for my referral group (Go Bold Networkers). Jumped in my car to drive to the auditorium in Norman for the dress rehearsal, which, even though I choked from dehydration and had to stop to get a drink, went fairly well.

I then I checked into a hotel, by myself, so I could rest my voice. I didn’t eat too much (a bag of microwave popcorn). I didn’t drink too much wine (a bit of a challenge there). I did yoga to relax and practiced 15 minutes of slow deep breathing and watched mindless TV until I fell asleep.

I got up early the morning of the talk, so I could take time for a full vocal and physical warm-up – my vocal yoga. Did the hair and make-up thing. As we “mature,” it takes a little longer to spiff up the ole girl. I drank several large glasses of water (Kangen water to be exact, but that is for another blog). Had a light breakfast of fruit and oatmeal. I drank decaf coffee. I didn’t want to do anything to trigger the chemical response in my body associated with stage fright. I know from experience that if performance anxiety sets in, I can’t be at my best.

I arrived in plenty of time to park, to register, and do another mini warm-up. As I waited off stage, I just did the breathing – slower, deeper, quieter, calmer. I didn’t try to “remember my lines,” I knew they would be there. I heard my introduction and took another deep breath as I walked to the red spot, found my feet, softened my knees, looked at the audience. “Breath, speak,” I thought to myself. And I launched into my topic – “Power without Press.”

It felt amazing – effortless! The audience fed me energy and I fed them back. And in what felt like a blink of an eye, my eighteen minutes were done and I left the stage.

As I was walking around to the front of the auditorium to watch the next speakers, it occurred to me that I just practiced what I teach – and it worked!


Rena Cook

Rena Cook is Professor Emerita at the University of Oklahoma. She is a TEDx speaker, author, voice, speech, confidence, and presentation coach. She is the founder of Vocal Authority, a training consultancy serving attorneys who want to use their voice in more commanding and authentic ways. She has authored several books, including Her Voice in Law, which she co-wrote with Laurie Koller. The book provides additional advice on the above topics and more, and is available at https://www.americanbar.org/.

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