A few years back, I delivered a sermon that was pretty well received. After the service, someone came up to me and asked how long it took to prepare it. “About a month, on and off,” I replied. “Really? A month?” was the surprised response. This post is all about the reason behind my answer to that question.
To start with, it’s fair to say that not every sermon and not every talk is given a month or even more to mature. Not long after that, I preached a mini-series of sermons where, after the first one, I only had a week to write the next. Nevertheless good talks, whether they are sermons, sales presentations, academic talks or reports do need time to mature. No matter how good we get at writing talks and no matter how silky our delivery, it will always take time to get things right and some of the most important work will always go on when we aren’t consciously thinking about the talk at all.
Here is a more up-to-date example. In mid-November, I will be giving a 50 minute talk in Belfast. I have known the topic for a couple of months now and the basic ideas have been bouncing around my mind since then. Until last week, however, all I had then was a title, an A5 page with a scribbled outline, some very poorly done PowerPoint slides and the echoes of some material I had tried out on the way home from university.
Last week, everything changed, I sat down and concentrated on the talk for an hour or so, turning my rough ideas into something a lot fuller. I produced a better set of notes, recreated the slides pretty much from scratch and launched into a rehearsal of the stuff I hoped would last for the first 25 minutes. Lo and behold, it did, almost to the second. Not only that but it seemed good, much better than I had imagined.
The ease at which it all came together was a nice change from some of my earlier experiences, which have involved leaning desperately over the keyboard trying to squeeze out ideas while panicking about how close to the deadline I am getting. The truth is that often I had found myself trying and retrying ideas and structures while taking too long to make any real progress.
What made the difference this time was, I believe, a more brain-friendly approach to work. Neuropsychologist and public speaker, Caroline Leaf points out that stress is the natural enemy for learning and creativity. Quite simply, it makes it harder for your brain to store, retrieve and process information.
That means that the stereotypical picture of a speaker scribbling talk notes the night before and pacing frantically around trying to make ideas come together then is not at all a picture of good practice. If you have ever tried to prepare that way, you will know why. The harder you try to find ideas, the more elusive they seem. The more frustrated you get looking for references or illustrations or links, the more frustrating the whole process becomes. Panic breeds stress, stress breeds frustration, frustration breeds panic and the vicious circle begins again.
Hence the need for breaks. Long breaks. Breaks that last for hours or days, or even weeks (if you have the time). Breaks where you are tempted to forget you even have a talk coming up. The great thing about these breaks is that, while you think your talk is going nowhere, your brain is silently gathering information, processing ideas and spotting useful illustrations all around you. You might not even be learning anything directly applicable to your talk but the space and time these breaks give you are as vital for the success of your talk as your time spent bent over your notes.
Of course, there is no harm in playing with a few ideas now and then or reading some relevant literature. It will do no harm to follow your nose a bit and even try your hand at writing an outline or making a diagram. The point of the breaks is not to force you into procrastination but to give you the time to write and prepare according to your own rhythms.
Breaks can also go hand-in-hand with experience. The more you do talks, the more you can gain a gut instinct as to what works and what doesn’t. Preparing with less stress allows you to be more aware of these instincts and be more prepared to follow them. Paradoxically, preparing with less stress and more breaks might actually lead to less time spent in preparation. So for your next talk, try taking a few breaks.