A basic rule offered in Confessions of a Public Speaker is to pick material you care deeply about, since you can’t blame an audience for being bored if you are. But what I didn’t cover is what to do when you have to present the same material 300 times: how do you stay excited about it then?

Steven Estes asked:

As academic advisors at a large university, we have a unique presentation dilemma during summer orientation. We have to present the same material every day for six weeks. We do use Power Point, but are entertaining the idea of breaking away from it. We tried having each advisor present a different part of the short (15 minute) presentation, but it gets pretty stale by week three–and we still have three weeks to go.

There are many ways to keep material interesting, but they all involve some work, or at least paying more attention. Consider that many stand-up comedians do the same 45-60 minutes of material night after night. Broadway actors have to say the same lines again and again for weeks on end. What keeps them interested?

Primarily it’s the energy they get from their audience. If the performer is paying attention the energy in the room, from the audience and from their co-performers, it’s different each time and that’s what makes it interesting to do the same thing again and again. Although the script is the same, each day and performance is new to everyone there and as a performer you have to use that energy from the audience to help you.

Here’s a short list of things to consider if you’re bored with your material:

  1. Improvisation. If you can base part of each segment on something from the audience: a story, a question, a unique element of the particular demographic you are speaking to on that day, change will be introduced naturally as part of your material. Think of your material as a kind of Mad Lib, with segments that depend on the injection of something from the audience (or from your co-presenter). If you choose the right slot, it will be different every time.
  2. Have audiences make choices. Design the material so the audience has to make choices. Let’s say you have a story you tell 5 minutes in to drive a point home. Learn 3 different stories/examples and let the audience vote to pick which one you tell (Or randomly choose one yourself each time if the audience keeps picking the same one).
  3. Examine the room to see what options are available. Perhaps you can stand in a different place when you’re speaking. Or use a hand microphone instead of the one on the lectern. One time try walking around Phil Donahue style. Maybe use a higher pitched voice, or a lower one. If you study the room there are many variables you can add that the audience will never notice since they only see the talk once, but that will make each instance interesting for you, and you’ll learn something new about public speaking or your material each time you change something.
  4. Play secret games with your co-presenters. Each day pick an uncommon word from the dictionary at random. Every presenter has to find a way to work that word into their section. There are many games like this you can play.
  5. Improve the slides. How boring are your slides? Simpler, cleaner slides will garner more energy from your audience which will help keep you interested.
  6. Tell personal stories, not lists of instructions. Don’t you have stories from your childhood you love telling again and again? If you make the presentation a series of stories, perhaps about stupid (or amazing) things that have happened at previous summers, instead of lists of instructions, your energy will be different. They don’t even have to be your personal stories: you can tell the stories of other college students.
  7. Change something in the material every few days. Presentations are a series of linked stories. If you change even one story it forces you to also change the segue you use to get into the new story and the segue you have to use to get out of it. One seemingly small change can ripple through how you give the entire presentation, at least the first time you make the change.
  8. Make it theater. Don’t simply do tag-team speaking where one person speaks at a time. Instead of slides, use the other two speakers to act out or demonstrate every point the speaker makes. This requires the effort to write the presentation more like a play and less like a business presentation, but it will give everyone something to do all the time and likely engage the audience better too.
  9. Start over. It’s probably time to move on. Louis C.K., inspired by the great George Carlin, drops all his old material each year and starts over. You’ve learned so much since the last time you started from scratch. Give yourself and your audience a chance to have fun again with something fresh for everyone.

I’m always changing my material, even in specific talks I’m asked to give again and again. I’m a different person each time I give a talk, with new stories or opinions to share. By making changes I get excited to see what happens, and it brings life to topics I’ve talked about dozens or even hundreds of times before.

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3 Responses to “Advice for speakers bored with their own material”

  1. Phil Simon |

    Nice tips, Scott. You can’t argue with George Carlin. I did six keynotes last year on the most recent book and, in each, there was a good bit of improv.

    Neil Peart of Rush constantly tweaks his drums solos. He uses a combination of improvisation and composition. Think of it as planned whims. It works for him.

    Reply
  2. Steve Estes |

    We can’t drop or change much material since it is important to get certain things across to our new students and we simplify the slides every year, but there are a couple of other ideas here that certainly could work. Though it will take some creativity to figure-out how to tailor them to our needs, 1, 6 & 8 look like they have some potential–I’ll run all of them by my co-presenters. Thanks for the prompt reply!

    Reply
  3. Peter Watts |

    Thanks for this post. You’ve given me some extra ideas.

    I’m a big fan of improv and telling stories. I also actively try to pull stories from the audience. When I’m on the road, as I am now, I try to find at least one new story per audience that I can then share with the subsequent audience. As you mention, this can often be enough to trigger a few refreshing changes in the content as well.

    Reply

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