Ever practiced with a script until you memorized it word for word, only to draw a blank during your actual presentation? Writing a script is usually a formula for failure, especially if your main goal is to speak spontaneously in the first place.
But just because you shouldn’t write a script doesn’t mean you shouldn’t jot down any notes at all. You can still prepare for an off-the-cuff talk–here’s what it takes.
1. A Mind Map
It doesn’t matter whether you’re much of an artist or not. Sketching out some sort of graphic can help you visualize what you want to say. Have you ever remembered what you were going to say because you could see in your mind’s eye where you wrote that idea on a piece of paper? That’s why making a “mind map” can be so helpful. Creating graphic representations of what you want to say will help you remember far more than a standard Word document or series of bullet points on a legal pad.
Mind mapping is based on a pretty straightforward principle: When you’re driving your car, it’s much easier to hold a map in your head of where you’re going than it is to memorize directions turn by turn. Similarly, when you’re speaking at a rate of 150 words per minute, it’s much easier to have a mental map of where you’re headed than it is to memorize every line. But unlike driving, the key here is to think circularly, not linearly. Keep the focus on your key message; that’s the center of your mind map. Once you know what it is, you’ve got to keep coming back to that main point over and over again.
One more travel metaphor: Consider the difference between traveling by train and by airplane. Trains always need to stay on the tracks; conductors can’t alter the trajectory. Airline pilots, on the other hand, can adjust course depending on new flight patterns issued by mission control or due to weather and turbulence. Talking unscripted can feel like riding a train: Once you’re off, you only know one place to go.
But when you have a circular mind map, you’re more like a plane–moving with more freedom to change direction and adjust your speaking if you hit any “turbulence” (like your mind momentarily going blank, for instance). No matter what happens, you can always chart a course back to your main message.
2. Key Questions
The second type of note you should make in advance are the key questions your presentation is going to answer. These should be “how,” “what,” or “why” questions rather than “yes” or “no” questions. And don’t write out the answers to your questions–you’re the expert, so you already know the answers. Instead, think of the questions as triggers that help you remember what you’re going to address.
Why are questions in particular so important for preparing to talk spontaneously? Because they help you organize your thoughts in a way that’s easier to recall–without having to recite something you’ve memorized verbatim. Think of your brain as a search engine. How do you get the best results back? By plugging in the right queries. Questions are among the most effective ways to unlock information in your mind, so make sure you have a few on standby that you can mentally pose to yourself.
3. Story Triggers
Finally, you should make note of a few keywords to help you remember the stories and anecdotes you’re planning to weave into your talk. Don’t write out your stories word for word; writing is very different from speaking. If you sound like you’re reading rather than telling a story, you won’t sound as engaging. So write down a few words–“story triggers”–that will jog your memory, and leave it at that.
You should still practice telling your stories, however. A good story needs to sound like you’re telling it to friends over dinner–so that’s exactly how and where you should practice. When I started out as a magazine writer, I’d often test my story ideas with friends at parties. If people got engaged and started talking about my topic, I knew I’d get an assignment. When you test your stories with your friends, you’ll know whether they’re the right ones to light up your audience, too.
As a bonus, this strategy also helps you avoid sounding pretentious. I recently worked with a client who wanted to add a story about the ancient Greek philosopher Thales to a presentation about something completely unrelated. He agreed to scrap that one in order to sound more relatable, then jotted down some story triggers to help him call to mind a couple of less grandiose anecdotes instead. Needless to say, that wound up sounding a lot more intimate and unscripted–because, after all, it was.