I Don’t Really Practice Before Writing And Speaking Anymore

It’s odd for an OCD case, but I don’t practice before doing the public speaking that has increasingly become part of my job. Crazy, you say? Perhaps. But hear me out.

Mood music:

My preparations for a speaking event — even if it was just moderating a panel, which is mostly what I’ve done of late — used to look a lot like the preparations I’d engage in for a writing assignment:

When I started working as a reporter and editor, I treated each story like an architectural design. I would lose myself in the same story for hours and hours, moving words, sentences and paragraphs around like pieces on a chess board.

It served a purpose, but I wasted so much time doing it this way, mainly because I feared imperfection so much that I was terrified to let a story go to the other editors until it was flawless. The stupidity there is that no story is ever flawless. You could rework a story for days whether it needed the work or not.

In more recent years I’ve been known to draw up elaborate blueprints for stories, especially series work. One former colleague at TechTarget once told me I was the most organized writer he had ever seen. If he could see me now, he’d be either amused or horrified.

Somewhere in the last four years, I stopped making blueprints for story series and I even stopped keeping a daily list of stories in progress. I’ve become more spontaneous in my writing. I pound the keyboard until everything is out of my head. Then, without giving it a second look, I send it straight to the editors.

I’ve adopted a similar approach with speaking.

Before giving a presentation, I would write a script and cut it up into bite-sized pieces, like flash cards. I’d obsess over every point I wanted to touch on and rewrite the notes. Then I’d get out there, fumble with my notes — knocking them out of order — and my frayed nerves would send me to oblivion.

Between 2006 and 2009 I did a lot of podcasts and I’d make the same mistakes because of over-preparing.

I think my earlier affinity for over-planning — definitely one of my OCD quirks — goes back to childhood. I was a prolific drawer, always working massive amounts of detail onto a page. I think I started doing it because in a world full of chaos (vicious childhood illnesses, parents divorcing, etc.) the page was a world I could control. And control it I did.

I would rework things over and over again, just like the stereotypical OCD case checking doorknobs multiple times to make sure the door is locked.

As a teenager still reeling from his brother’s death, my drawings took a decidedly more violent turn. I started sketching people dead on the ground with knives protruding from various body parts. A teacher at the Paul Revere School caught me one day and said, “If you are ever assaulted, you will never draw stuff like this again.” I think she was worried that I’d be the one to start assaulting people. I did, verbally.

In high school I went to a vocational school and studied drafting and design for three years. I excelled at it, and loved the order and attention to detail the work required. I also loved the drafting tables we used, which were high enough that you could draw while standing. Being the fidgety type, standing helped me focus much better.

Somewhere in my senior year of high school, I decided I wanted to write instead. My architectural skills served me well in this regard, giving me the attention to detail needed for good writing. My writing still sucked, mind you. I was still too young and inexperienced to know what I was doing.

All through college I pursued writing, specifically journalism, and I was in a band where I wrote all the lyrics. I’ve torn my father’s warehouse apart looking for the notebooks I wrote them in, to no avail.

Also lost in those old notebooks are notes I would draw up for use in a public speaking class and for the student government meetings (I was in the student government for a couple years while at North Shore Community College).

I had to do a lot of talking in front of people back then, and the worse my OCD got — and the more I over-prepared — the worse things would go.

Sometime in 2006, a miraculous accident showed me that I didn’t have to put myself through such torture before a talk.

I was giving a talk about what my then-employer was all about and I had a detailed PowerPoint presentation that failed to work come showtime. Actually, the laptop itself was frozen. I had no choice but to do it off the cuff.

That’s when I realized I was more at ease without a script. It was the first epiphany I had that I could keep my OCD in better check and perform better without all the compulsive note-taking and hours practicing.

As I got a firmer grip on the OCD between 2006 and 2009, I started to build the more spontaneous approach into other aspects of my life, including the writing.

It’s been much better this way. That said, I’m not suggesting that you go into whatever you do with zero preparation. You have to sit down and think to form the frame of your story or talk. The key is to keep from over-preparing.

I explained my current writing approach in a two-part series I co-wrote with my wife, Erin. Part one is here. Part two is here.

Here’s how I roll on the speaking side:

–An organization calls and asks me to moderate a panel or give a solo presentation. I say sure, hang up the phone and promptly forget until a reminder email arrives a couple weeks before the event.

–I go outside and pace around for about 10 minutes, carving the basics of the presentation in my head.

–I go back to my desk and dump those basics into a PowerPoint file.

–Since humor will always get me through an event, I look for funny cartoons and memes to put in slides. In doing so, I get relaxed and the subject matter gets clearer.

–Then I fall back on my writing. I go to articles and blog posts I’ve written on the subject matter and cut and paste sections into slides. Come showtime, these will remind me what I wrote about, and I can then go off the cuff, sharing conversations I’ve had with the professionals who work the issues I’m there to discuss.

–I limit the slides to about 15, to force myself to be more conversational and less of a lecturer.

–I submit the PowerPoint, make an Outlook calendar reminder of the day and time, and forget about it again.

–On the drive to the event, I don’t go over the talking points. Instead, I play loud music and let my mind go.

It’s not the perfect mix. But it works for me a lot better than the days when I would make a bunch of flashcards and run through the talk endlessly in my head.


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