Daniel D. Beck

Checklists for public speaking

In the days, hours, and minutes before giving a conference talk, my brain gradually loses function. A day or two before, my thinking takes on an anxious edge. By the time I’m about to walk on stage, my mental faculties are reduced to walk there, stand here, and smile politely, before the muscle memory of practice takes over completely. And after my talk, my brain continues to buzz with the excitement of having just been on stage. To deal with all this, I try to put my thinking into an outboard brain: a checklist.

I have a few different checklists for three major periods surrounding a talk: the night before my talk, the hour preceding my talk, and wrapping up after the talk is over.

The night before checklist

In the weeks preceding a conference, I rehearse the talk many times so I can keep to my wheels down rule: when my plane lands in the city where I’m giving the talk, I stop working on it. I may do one or two more rehearsals, but I stop changing any of the talk’s content. At this point, my preparation becomes strictly practical, making sure I’m in the right place, with the right equipment, in the right mindset.

This process begins the night before. Here’s the first checklist, with annotations:

I’m a generally anxious person, so this checklist gives me the reassurance I need to get a restful night’s sleep.

The day-of computer checklist

Once I’m at the speaking venue, there’s a few things I do to make sure there are no distractions when I’m presenting. This isn’t time critical, but at some point, usually a session or two before mine, I go through this checklist on my laptop:

Once my computer is ready, I’m free to attempt to enjoy the conference until the session immediately before my talk.

The pre-presentation checklist

I’m always annoyed that the speaker before me is scheduled before me because I never get to enjoy their talk. Even if I watch part of it, my mind is somewhere else—I’m approaching a state of pure nervous energy. I try to keep it simple before going on stage:

Then I head on stage. If I’m lucky, the conference has some sort of speaker wrangler who will tell me where to go and when (I find this to be extremely calming). Otherwise, I try to position myself near the stage after I hear the applause for the previous speaker.

The post-presentation checklists

If I’ve practiced my talk and followed my checklists, the next 20 minutes or so go by in a blur. Once I’m a couple of minutes into my talk, I’m usually having some actual fun up there! When I’m finished, I’ll spend a few minutes clearing my things out of the way for the next speaker and have a chat with anyone interested enough to come up to the front of the room to talk to me.

Not long after that, I’ll politely excuse myself and go through my post-talk checklists, which are the pre-talk checklists in reverse. I refill my pockets, put my badge back on, and take a minute to peek at Twitter and thank people for any feedback they’ve given me.

These checklists have gone through a few iterations. What you’ve seen here are the things I feel I need to be confident and deliver the best talk that I can. I’ve refined them to the point that they’ll fit on a few index cards. I hope you’ve got a process for when you’re about to get on stage, but if you don’t, maybe adapt my checklists to your needs and give them try.