How to Prepare a Public Talk

How to Prepare a Public Talk


I remember listening to a senior Buddhist monk giving a  talk.  He spoke for about an hour. His talk seemed to lack focus and appeared disjointed. I gently told him later he could consider preparing his talk by writing notes to establish a theme. He said his tradition did not use notes.

I asked him: “What is more important – clinging to your tradition or effective communication?” Incidentally, the Buddha placed immense emphasis on listening (Pali: savana) to important talks. He regarded important public talks, including questions and answers, dialogue and inquiry, as a primary vehicle for transformation. Clear communications wake people up. Your talks deserve serious reflection and solid preparation.

A sociological survey showed that public speaking is most people’s biggest fear. The second biggest fear is fear of death. In other words, most people regard public speaking as a fate worse than death! You can use the energy of any nervousness to communicate.

Some speakers  do not prepare talks but draw upon the contact with people, issued and experiences along with meditations and reflections. Such speakers then endeavour to point to deeper insights through their talk. Outside of retreats, I spend much time reading the discourses, exploring themes, research, reflection on personal experiences and taking notes from conversations. This approach serves as a primary basis for the  talks.

Ideally, I will find 10 or 15 minutes to walk before the talk to walk slowly up and down in my room or outdoors to let the theme unfold within. I used extensive notes for the first 100 talks that I gave in the 1970’s.

The primary intention with a  an important alk is to provide inspiration, subsequent reflection for the audience, insights, opening of the heart, and  wisdom. Remember to check that your talk meets some or all of these intentions.

Other speakers can spend a week or two preparing every sentence of their talk. The speaker reads the talk to the listeners. Other speakers use a handful of notes or a single page of notes. The approach does not matter. The benefits for the listener take priority.

Decide on the theme

Do not wait until the last minute to start working on a talk. Listeners can usually tell that a talk is not well prepared. Your talk should be well prepared beforehand  – with perhaps a little adaption for the event, itself.

Never be afraid to speak with the full sense of authority.

If the talk is for 40 minutes then divide it up into three sections, beginning, middle and end.Perhaps have a couple of blank pages for each section with a general topic for each section.

Or you may wish to use a ‘mind-map.’ Take a piece of blank paper and write down the central topic in the middle of it with arrows pointing to themes connected with it.

Try to write down as many reflections and insights as you have. Try to write a lot more than you need and then edit to retain the important insights.

If there are particular sentences or points you want to make, put them in capital letters. When you speak the sentence in the hall, say the sentence more slowly to the listeners and pause afterwards.

Talk, Stories and Title

Make sure that your talk keeps close to the title.

  • Does your talk address the primary questions, what, how, why, where, when, who?
  • Make sure your stories fit into the topic.
  • Start your talk on a strong note and finish on a strong note, preferably ultimate truth.
  • If your story is too long about yourself, or you tell more than a couple of stories about yourself, you will probably sound self-indulgent, or even narcissistic. Remember the theme of the talk rather than give license to the self.
  • It is important to find the balance between the number of stories you tell, the number of quotes (making sure they are very accurate) and your direct dharma teachings.
  • Too many quotes will reduce your authority.
  • Be mindful about using a talk to make a sales pitch, such as your latest book. “Yes, we know your new book is up for sale at the back of the hall. We came in that way.”
  • If a story is too long or you tell too many stories, it tends to water down the body of the talk.
  • Remember that stories about one’s personal experiences can be helpful but probably you, the teacher, will get more enjoyment out of telling them than anybody else.
  • Personal stories can provide inspiration and insight but also can lead to even more transference onto teachers. If you tell of your insights from your past or present experiences, you will be regarded as wonderful. If you tell of your failings, you will probably be praised for being so open or regarded as out of touch.
  • If the talk becomes a long personal confession, then those who listen will wonder why you are teaching. And so should you!

Many speakers steer away from critical analysis in their talks. They seem afraid of appearing dualistic or arrogant. Some  never say anything that is challenging. They always sound painfully agreeable. They make sure that everything they say is non-challenging. Speakers then can sound predictably comfortable.

  • Don ‘t be afraid to speak what you perceive as truth but be prepared for the backlash.
  • If you can’t take the heat, then don’t go near the fire.
  • Write short, clear sentences. Write in the active sense, not the passive. (‘The dog barked at the man’ rather than ‘the man was barked at by the dog.’
  • There is a value to humour, and the funny story since it helps to keep the listener’s heart open. If you offer too much humour, then become a comedian in a nightclub.
  • Be watchful of the desire to want to use the talk to be liked or loved.
  • Don’t be afraid to speak with the quiet determination to explain at length and in depth Dharma teachings.
  • Make sure there is a flow to the talk as you explore different aspects of the theme. If you are making a decisive switch from one topic to another, then remember to pause. A pause of a few seconds serves like a new chapter in a book.
  • Be experimental with your style of talks.

The Time for a Talk

Talks have a certain power, especially if delivered with pregnant pauses and you sit still with an upright body.

Try giving a 20-minute talk and offer 20 minutes for questions. Keep your response to questions short and speak eyeball to eyeball to the questioner, as much as possible.

Try giving a 30-minute talk or longer with a maximum of three stories.

Try giving a talk without a personal story

Try giving a talk without a story at all

Try giving a talk without any humour

Try giving a talk without an anecdote.

One type of speaker speaks in a traditional language – religious/scientific/psychological or whatever. Another type of teacher adopts a freestyle approach. Speakers of the first approach can give rise to the ego of the narrow-minded view and be hard to understand. Speakers of the second view can give rise to the broad-minded ego without any backbone to the message.

  • Bring clarity and insight to bear to every issue. Keep to your strengths but develop other areas.
  • Read your prepared talk out at least once out loud beforehand to yourself before giving it in public.
  • If you are going to read all of your talk out, make sure you have enough light to read from, make sure your handwriting or typeface is readable, and you are not talking into the floor.
  • After you have given several talks, you may need less preparation and fewer pages of notes for the talk. In time, you may come down to the use of a small piece of paper or the confidence to speak straightforwardly without notes.
  • If you know your talk well, then you won’t need to look at your notes the whole time. You will then be able to glance at them as a reminder of what is next.

Remember you are  in the role of the public speaker or teacher. You may say you are not but if you sit or stand before others and speak, then you have stepped into that role. The listeners will probably see you in the archetype role of the Speaker, the Teacher – whether you like it or not.

Your words can touch the listener so deeply that it has a beneficial effect on him or her for the rest of their life.

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