How to Give a Kick-Ass Talk

How to Give a Kick-Ass Talk
Down Arrow

This was originally a Stride ⚡️ Lightning Talk⚡️ hosted by the Learning Initiative and presented by Stride’s Founder and Boardwoman, Debbie Madden.


Glossophobia. I don’t know if anyone knows what this word means, but it is the fear of public speaking. I found out recently that this is the number one phobia in all of America. Glossophobia affects 75% of us, which is shocking to me. Seventy-five percent of us are afraid of what I’m doing right now. And 10% of us are beyond terrified, can’t even think about it; it makes them go into a cold sweat.

So today, we’re going to talk about how to give a kick-ass talk, lightning or otherwise. 

We’re going to go over four things. First, I’m going to teach you how to open strong. Then I’m going to talk about how to anchor, and the importance of anchoring your presentation. I’m going to go through avoiding the number one mistake, which is also my biggest pet peeve. And then, finally, I’m going to share with you how to prepare for these talks. Whether it's five minutes or an hour, this is something that has never failed me in the past 30 years.


Opening strong


Many people will start by sharing with you the title of their talk, their name, where they are from, and what their job is, but research proves that most of the audience will actually complete their full and unfairly biased judgement of you in the first 30 seconds of your talk. So, one way to open strong is to actually do something interesting—share a factoid, ask a question, grab someone's attention and pull them in, and then go ahead and introduce yourself and tell them what you’re going to talk about.

If you are like most of us, and you’re terrified of this concept of talking, one way to think about it is that by the time you’re 30 seconds into this, all of your hard work is behind you. The rest is relatively easy. You’ve already presented the first 30 seconds, you’ve already completed your deck, the audience has already judged you, and now you can just relax.

If you can’t actually get excited, be nervouscited, which is a word that my daughter and I use everyday. It’s when you’re both nervous and excited at the same time. The second part of a strong open is showing up. Show up with your whole self every time you give a talk. Whether it's a five-minute talk to two people or an hour-long talk to an audience of 10,000. Think about what you’re going to wear, and think about how you’re going to be mentally and physically present. Don’t roll out of bed in your jammies to give a talk. Really, really be there with your whole self. 

Quick story about how I showed up with a strong open and the benefit it had...

Two years ago, I gave a talk at this summit called Scaling Up, in New Orleans. There were 300 CEOs from around the world. Basically it’s two days where they get top authors and celebrities from around the world to give these talks. They have Pat Lencioni, General Stanley McChrystal, Mark Cuban, some of the best authors and speakers in the world. And then every year, two or three low-level CEOs, like myself, finagle a five-minute talk. So those guys have an hour up on stage, and I’ve got five minutes up on stage.

It was one of the most terrifying talks I’ve ever given. I decided I was going to show up, open strong, put on a nice dress, put some makeup on, and say something interesting. Once the two days were over, they put together a sizzle reel to use for marketing for the full next year to promote the conference. With about 30 hours of talks to choose from, my strong open made the sizzle reel.

So I shared something interesting, and the benefit was that whoever ran their marketing department for the conference thought the thing that I said was more interesting than anything else that was said, and mine was one of two talks that actually made the marketing reel. So show up with your whole self, and you will be memorable.




Second part; always anchor. As excited as you are about what you’re talking about and what you’re sharing, I guarantee you, most people in the audience are asking themselves one question: “How long until this thing is over?” They could be really excited about the conversation, but maybe they have to have lunch, maybe their kids are screaming in the background, maybe they have a bunch of emails. When you read a book, that book has a title, it has chapters, and you know when you’re done because you can physically see how far into the book you are. But with a PowerPoint deck, you don’t know whether we are 10% of the way there or 90% of the way there.

From one of my college professors, this is one of the most memorable things I’ve ever been taught:

  • Tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em.
  • Tell ’em.
  • Tell ’em what you told ’em.

That’s what anchoring does for you. I’m telling you we’re going to be reviewing these four things. Now I’m going through the four things. And then at the end, guess what? You’re going to see the main slide again. Take your audience with you along for the journey.


Don’t make the single biggest presentation mistake


Now, my third point is the number-one mistake that I see people make repeatedly. This is a fact: humans can either read or listen. Do not try to get them to do both simultaneously.

An example. Imagine a slide with a large block of text on it. Now imagine that the words on that slide are completely different from what the presenter is saying. The audience can either listen to what the speaker is saying, or they can completely block out the speaker and focus on the text. They are trying to figure out what is going on, and you will confuse and lose them.

Ideally, most of your slides have few or no words. However, it is possible to have slides with lots of text on them, but that means as a presenter you will either have to read the entire slide, or you will have to be silent and give them time to read. Then, and only then, can you say additional words. If you have a text-heavy slide, use animation to make different bits of the text appear at different times. This way, your audience isn’t tempted to read ahead.

And just like that, we’re on to the last point, and you’re still with me because I’ve anchored!


Putting it all together


How do you put this all together in practice?

  1. First thing I do is write it down. I don’t start with the deck; I start with a Google doc.
  2. Then I go into Google Slides or PowerPoint. I copy/paste the words from my doc into the slides to organize them. I don’t start the design yet.
  3. Then I go back to my Google docs, and I bold the main points. 
  4. Then I go back to my slides, and I format. Do I want a video, bullets, cute pictures?
  5. Then I practice my talk. Here's the key: I stand up and talk out loud, at full volume. I don’t time myself. I make sure I’ve delivered the key takeaway from my talk.
  6. Then I memorize the first slide, verbatim. I want to really nail this slide when I’m presenting. (Remember, those first 30 seconds really count.)
  7. Next, I present out loud again, but I time it. I want to get close to the time I have.
  8. Then I go back into the slides, and I edit. I delete slides and organize them.
  9. Then I practice again. I time it and talk out loud. I stand up and make sure to project my voice. I make sure I’m smiling, and maybe I’ll even wear what I’m planning on wearing. I’ll ask my family to be my audience and practice in front of them. (If you can get your kids and partner as your audience, you’ll be ready for any critics.)
  10. As much as you can do all of this, iterate. Memorize, tell your story, iterate.

Pro Tips

  • Memorize only your first slide; then the rest is just telling your story. Your slides will guide you. 
  • If you are nervous, you are going to forget to say something. Write those words down on the slide. It's worth it to write your words down, if you really don’t want to forget to say something.
  • If you have more to say than your allotted time, turn the stuff you can’t include into a blog post or recorded talk, and tell your audience to go to XYZ link to read about ABC.
  • Reuse a good deck as much as possible.


Debbie Madden

Debbie Madden

Founder & Chairwoman

No items found.
green diamond