Preflight Checklist for Public Speaking

Preparing for a speech is more than just making an outline and memorizing your content. You need to make sure the environment is perfect. Use this checklist to boost your chances for a successful speech.

Stever Robbins
4-minute read
Episode #218

Preflight Checklist for Public Speaking

I love public speaking! Actually, I do. I really love public speaking. But most people don't. They're terrified of it, because they're afraid they'll look silly. Well, of course they will, if they wear a paisley and plaid combination. But a little up-front preparation will help insure you come across at your best..

However, it's not just the content that we need to prepare in advance of a public speaking gig. Pilots use a preflight checklist to make sure a plane works before they try to fly it. We call this "prudence." I've developed a preflight checklist for public speaking, to ensure that your speech has the greatest possible chance for success:

Tip #1: Make Sure Your Clothing Is In Order

When giving a speech, you don't want to be upstaged by your clothes! When Janet Jackson has a wardrobe malfunction, it's $100 million worth of free publicity. When you or I have a wardrobe malfunction, it's public embarrassment as we become the overnight laughing stock of YouTube. 

Guys, make sure your fly is zipped. If you're wearing a button down shirt and tie, make sure your top shirt button is buttoned, and your tie is snugly tied with no gap between the tie and the shirt. Then double check that your tie isn't peeking out the bottom of your jacket. Really. You just zipped your fly. You don't need your tie to form an arrow highlighting the fact.

Women, make sure any support straps are covered by your clothes. If you're wearing form-fitting clothes (you can, since your bodies actually have a shape, unlike men, who are basically just big dough blobs), make sure anything that wrinkles is smoothed out.

Everyone, make sure your shirt or blouse is completely tucked in, and if you have a microphone pack, it's as unobtrusive as possible. If you're wearing a jacket, smooth it down and "zhuzh" it so it drapes nicely. If you button your jacket, leave the bottom button open to allow movement.

If you're doing a seated video interview, tame your jacket! Jackets can ride up around your ears without you knowing it. Your neck will disappear and you'll look like Yoda. That's bad. You want a neck, like Han Solo or Princess Leia. If you're sitting down in a jacket, sit on the tail of the jacket to keep it taut and smooth.

Tip #2: Plan for a Clip-on Microphone

If you're going to be recorded, consider an outfit with a belt, jacket, or collared shirt. If you're wearing a crew-neck shirt under a pullover sweater, there's nowhere to clip a mic.

Clip-on mics usually have a battery pack. Put the battery pack under your jacket so it can't be seen, preferably even clipped to your belt at the back. Hide cords by running them inside your jacket, blouse, or shirt. This will boost your confidence as you realize for the duration of the presentation, you are now half man and half machine.

Tip #3: Check Out the Lighting

Many lecture halls, especially in hotels, have horrible lighting. Someone spent a hundred million dollars to build a big, beautiful conference hotel, and hired Fred the Guy With No Taste to do the lighting design for all the presentation rooms. Overhead lighting throws shadows on your face and makes you look like Joan Rivers before her latest face lift.

You'll need a friend to help with this. Walk around the stage area and have your friend point out the spots where the light best illuminates your face. Notice where on the floor that is and try to stay there during your presentation.

Tip #4: Avoid the Feedback Zone

If you are holding a microphone or have a lavalere mic, you run the danger of producing feedback through the audio system. Find out where the speakers are, and make sure you know how far away to stay, and which direction to face, so feedback isn't a problem. In theory, the sound engineer will make sure you don't feed back. In practice, the sound engineer is outside smoking a cigarette and doesn’t care if you make the entire auditorium go deaf by standing too close to the speakers.

Tip #5: Make Sure You Can Read the Presenter Notes

I recently gave a TEDx talk where they provided a screen for presenter notes, visible only to us, as we were speaking. I'd prepared my presenter slides with a very small font, and was standing far enough away from the screen that it was hard to read. If you will have a prompting screen or a teleprompter, take a few moments before you begin to adjust your position and the text size so you can read it.

Tip #6: Have Water and Notes Easily Accessible

If you are presenting for more than 20 minutes or so, have a lecturn or table with a glass of water and a copy of your notes easily available. You want to sip water as needed to keep from getting hoarse. And looking at your notes occasionally is fine. The classy way to do it is to step over to the notes table, glance down, then look back at the audience. Do not carry your notes in your hand and stare at them like a deer trapped in headlights. They're there for a bit of prompting; not as a script. Know your material coming in.

Tip #7: Double-check as You Begin

It's better to stop and fix a problem now than discover it when it's too late.

Arrange with the tech folks in advance—the sound engineer and cameraman—that they should give you a thumbs-up shortly after you begin, so you can be sure everything's going well. If there's a technical problem, it's better to stop and fix it quickly than to discover after-the-fact that the recording you needed didn't happen due to a last minute glitch.

Public speaking can be scary, and it can be super-exciting. If you want to deliver a masterful performance every time, use these tips as a checklist to make sure the stage is set to highlight you and your great content.

This is Stever Robbins. Email questions to getitdone@quickanddirtytips.com. 

I mentor successful people in building exceptional careers by helping them turn business ideas into entrepreneurial enterprises. If you want to know more, visit www.SteverRobbins.com.

Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!

Checklist image from Shutterstock

About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.