Crushing the scariest talk of your life

The purpose of guest blog posts is to advertise the amazing work others are doing in improving presentation skills. I am humbled and privileged that three such folk have shared their insights. This post is important in many way, not least because three presenters that are universally held in high regard have generously shown us behind the curtain of preparation that lead to their delivery of three incredible presentations at dasSMACC in June 2017. The talks are at the bottom but first, travel with them as they detail some of the work and feedback that presentation buddies put into the finished articles.


Crushing the scariest talk of your life: Using peer coaching and deliberate practice to level up your presentation skills


Sara Gray, David Carr & Chris Hicks

Here’s the scenario:

You are a pretty good public speaker, and you’ve given some great local talks, but all of a sudden you get the invitation of a lifetime – to give the plenary at a prestigious international conference.  You are thrilled by the invite, but also terrified. Can you take your game to the next level?

That was the three of us, when the invitation to speak at dasSMACC arrived at our doors.  Three good speakers, looking to take it to the next level on an international stage, and desperately keen to not choke under pressure.  But how?

It can be difficult to get constructive focused feedback from relevant stakeholders (aka people you respect who are good speakers).  Most people just clap you on the shoulder and say “great talk”! We wanted to develop a mechanism to give serious feedback and coaching tips to each other.  So, to ratchet it up for dasSMACC, we decided to engage in a focused and deliberate process of preparing, workshopping and practicing our presentations. In front of each other.  And then giving each other feedback: Real, difficult, confrontational, useful feedback. No holds barred. In the spirit of trying to get from good to better.

This was novel for us, and felt scary – it is hard to make yourself that vulnerable – but we committed to the process because we were truly seeking to improve.

Our process

Although we were kind of making this up as we went along, the process wasn’t totally arbitrary.  Much has been written about the need to set your goals a few percentage points beyond your comfort zone in order to really push for improvement and, ultimately, mastery; This is central to the concept of flow and mastery-learning.  We chose to base our method on a peer coaching model that facilitated deliberate practice: delivery, feedback, revise, repeat.  We were at once each other’s peers, coaches, and mentors — and it worked because we carried a healthy sense of respect (and maybe a bit of fear) for one another’s skill and experience, along with a very specific goal to work towards.  Here’s what it looked like, in six easy steps.

1.Choose your coaches carefully

Choose at least two other people to prepare with, ideally they should be speakers who you admire.  Choose people who are honest. Choose people who scare you a little. And if you are a rookie at this, choose friends for your first attempt.

Choosing reviewers whose strengths are different from yours and whose strengths are different from each other.  We had unique talents to bring to each other, in terms of narrative development, slide design and presentation style.

2.Brainstorm ideas together

Work together to develop ideas, titles, narratives and general flow.  This is the easiest part. Discuss the physical setting of the talk, the stage and the target audience.  Keep it fun.

3.Present a draft talk to your coaches

This is a scary one.  Delivering a (often half-done) talk to threatening people who are going to give you honest feedback is hard.  Bourbon helps.  And share the misery: it helps to present a stumble-through in front of colleagues who you know will have to do the same in front of you: it keeps everyone honest and respectful.

4.Keep it objective

We used an explicit feedback form (see below) to give each other honest direct comments.  It was pretty eye-opening! But we all learned valuable tips that no one had ever told us before.  This was the type of feedback that has traditionally never been given. And having a form that compelled you to look for and write down specific areas of improvement, things in the talk that needed to be axed, things you did really well really helped focus the conversation and provided the permission to be (respectfully) blunt.

5.Seek feedback in-situ

We all attended each other’s talks that spring (on various topics and at various venues), filled out the same feedback form, and gave each other honest advice after each one.  Although we weren’t delivering the important talks, we were still prepping, beating out bad habits, noticing new ones and learning valuable presentation skills from each other.  It’s a unique challenge to act as a reviewer and not an audience member: You have to really sense the whole crowd and reflect not just on your own opinions for feedback. Similarly, it adds a level of intensity to give a presentation knowing that someone is actively critiquing your work.

6.Present the (mostly) finished product

Yes, again with the feedback form.  By this time, the process is less daunting, and the talk is getting better and better.  The reviewers can suggest final tweaks, and this serves as an excellent practice session for ensuring the talk will be phenomenal.  After this, all you need is practice practice practice until the big day.  If you want to beat the stress out of you, over-learning to the point of automatic is a great way to do it.  By the day of the big presentation, we’d all been off script and working from memory for a couple of weeks.  Feeling anxious, but ready — exactly where we wanted to be.


Bottom Line

If you do a lot of speaking (or even if you don’t) you’re probably already a pretty good presenter.  Like any skill though, it’s pretty easy to plateau at “good” in the absence of focused feedback and deliberate practice.  You need a coach. You need guidance. You can only get so far in the process on your own.  While we were initially sceptical about this (aka paralyzed by performance anxiety), the process was transformative. Undoubtedly, we are all better speakers for having coached one another towards a specific goal. In the future, we would not give an important talk without a similar preparation process.  Choose your coaches wisely, find your courage, and give it a whirl – it will be worth it.



When I reflect back on the talk, I was amazed how much it evolved through this process.  It started as a fairly good talk, I believe, but it became much stronger through repeated coaching and feedback.  I was also struck by how invested we became in each other’s success. We couldn’t relax until all of us had finished speaking – in this way, it became much more of a team sport – a lovely unanticipated side effect of our process.



We were blessed to have three established speakers to polish each other’s craft.  It was a unique situation. I think it becomes a relative thing. You need to train the trainer.  Which is why Ross’s p3 workshops have such a huge impact. Taking feedback from Sara the first time stung.  It was eye-opening. Chris was easier and sweeter! The process, the feedback, took the craft to the next level.  I think that three established speakers benefited greatly highlights the importance of this evaluative tool. Can’t imagine a high yield conference without this.



What strikes me is how automatic it all seems.  I watch that talk and realize that as I spoke I knew what the next sentence was going to be — I didn’t have to think about it.  That’s the rehearsal and over learning bit. And the narrative was shaped by the honest and direct feedback from my friends and colleagues, Dave and Sara.  I’d never try preparing for a big talk any other way.






Thank you to the three of them for their insights, I hope you find it valuable. The form they used for their feedback is below. You can download it too. Let us know what you think, what your experiences are. How can we get better at presentations?

Crushing your talk: speaker feedback form




Best moments of the talk? (most engaging or funny or thought-provoking or novel) 1.



Worst moments? (awkward, annoying, boring, tell me where you tuned out) 1.



Annoying things I do? (verbal, gestures, posture) 1.


Great things I do? (verbal, physical, whatever) 1.


Name a slide you would cut (or seriously edit) 1.
An idea you would expand? 1.
What did you learn? 1.
Any other comments or feedback?

On content/story/ideas…

On design…

On presentation….






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