How do I prepare for high stakes presentations? | My public speaking merit badge

Today you’ll be earning your “public speaking merit badge”, because this guide is all about rehearsing and preparing for presentations, speeches, and any other high-stakes situations

Let me back up. Did you know I used to be a Scouts leader? Yep, I spent a year teaching about nature, setting up campfires, and handing out merit badges all around one theme. BE PREPARED. 

Prepare to get your public speaking merit badge!

In this guide you will learn:

Do you deserve a “public speaking merit badge?” 

You will. Once you’re prepared and then overprepared. 

Only the prepared speaker deserves to be confident

Dale Carnegie

Ever seen a presenter who’s flawless, effortless, and natural? They’ve prepared for that. 

It’s true. And the people who expect to just come off as great orators because they feel they’re already “a natural” usually just dither around talking without actually saying anything. 

Are there exceptions? NO. But at some point you won’t have to prepare as much as you do now. It will feel natural. Everything will just snap into place. But it’s not going to come if you don’t put in the work NOW. 

It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech

Mark Twain

I’ve had people tell me that they just run through their presentation a couple of times and then they wonder why they sound monotone or forget their words on stage.


Maybe this was okay when you were in high school, but I’m guessing your presentations now are a bit more high stakes. It’s only when you’re over prepared that you can really focus on over-delivering. If your talk is important to you, treat it that way. 

I’m different from your typical public speaking coach 

I want you to know something. I’m different. 

My advice is often counterintuitive. Unconventional. It’s often the opposite of what a typical public speaking coach would say. But it works for my clients, because they’re different too. 

(In fact, I’ve worked with clients who were so scared to work with yet another coach who wouldn’t get them and we totally clicked.) 

In general, I’m a fairly mild person who doesn’t feel the need to talk all the time. I’m introverted and analytical and I pride myself on my empathy. 

The people who tend to work with me are pretty similar. 

But when I present, I’m ON FIRE. 

I feel like a beast uncaged. I’m full of presence and energy. I expect everyone to lean forward, open their eyes, and nod along. 

By the way, this doesn’t just happen on its own, and I wasn’t just “born with it”. Prior to presentations, speeches, interviews, pitches, and any other high-stakes situations I have to get prepared and “get in the zone.” 

I know it’s corny, but it’s totally how I feel. (Image source)

It gets easier with practice, but you have to start somewhere. So start here. 

(PS, yours truly was interviewed in Fast Company for this if you want to see more.) 

The typical advice for practicing and preparing your presentation

Okay, okay, we’ve all heard how you should prepare for your presentation. 

Here are some public speaking tips you’ve probably tried: 

1 – Practice in front of friends and family. 

The premise is that practicing in front of them will make you feel more comfortable to present in front of “a real” audience. 

They’ll also give you feedback and tell you where to improve. 

Guess what. I don’t do this. It’s not that this is bad advice, but it’s not helpful to everyone. I might just have something that works better. 

2 – Don’t memorize – have brief notes and just speak naturally. 

Again, I agree with this, but I think you might be putting too much pressure on yourself to just talk from your head. While I don’t want you to sound like a robot, there are things you can do to help your brain that will make you sound more natural and on top of things. 

3 – You have to nail your speech from start to finish while you practice. 

In an ideal world, yes. But this is just perfectionism. A marathon runner doesn’t have to run the full length while training – he counts on his adrenaline to carry him through in the moment. Maybe you’re the same. 

So when it comes to the typical advice, I agree that it makes sense and that it works for most people. But let me ask you something. 

Does it work for you? 

Maybe you just have a different starting point (at least for now) and maybe it’s time to try something different. 

Instead… I do the opposite

Shock and awe! (Image Source)

4 ways to prepare for a speech like a public speaking coach

I write my speech out word for word 

I can already feel the “experts” cracking their knuckles to send me flak on this. Oh well. It works for me, and it works for my clients. Let me tell you why. 

First of all, I don’t need to do this all the time, but I always do this for those high-stakes presentations and even interviews. And just to clarify, no, I don’t “memorize it” like a robot. Writing it out helps in other ways. 

I find that while I’m preparing my speech, my mind wants to go in all sorts of directions. I get distracted. I get ahead of myself. I jump all over the place. 

Writing or typing helps me set the pace. It helps me make sure I didn’t miss anything. It helps me go back and add things in as they come up in my head. It helps me test out different ways of wording what I want to say. 

It also makes me feel less anxious. Knowing that there’s a good version of my speech already down on paper makes me less worried about missing something as I rehearse. 

If you find yourself getting anxious, feel like your mind is jumping around, or feel like you keep messing up, try writing it out. Maybe it’s not for you, but most people are amazed by how much this helps. 

I NEVER practice a presentation in front of others

(Okay… rarely.)

I know that this goes against everything we’ve all learned to be true. I know, like the tip above, this is going to set some people’s hair ablaze, but I stick by it. 

Why I don’t do it: 

This sounds mean, but I don’t really care for most people’s feedback when it comes to my presentations. 

  • For one, they’re probably not the same audience as who I’ll be presenting to, so they might ask me to expand on some things that are obvious, or condense some things that are not. 
  • They’ll probably tell me all the things I need to improve but not how to fix them, leaving me self-conscious and aiming for improvement in the dark
  • They may give me feedback on something fairly irrelevant, in the name of being supportive, while ignoring the big picture. For example, the font size on your slides. This may seem good-natured, but there are some things you don’t need to worry about the day before a big talk, and I wouldn’t want to catch myself all of a sudden obsessing over something that won’t make or break my presentation. 
  • And most importantly, you might feel a tendency to pull back or play it small when you’re presenting to them. If you want to turn up your larger than life self for your presentation, you might have a residual fear that they’ll look at you with some judgment. (It may be a positive judgement, but it’s still a little scary.) And so we try to be our “regular self” to make sure our friends are comfortable. 


I agree that sometimes you do need external feedback. There are certain topics I’m not an expert in, and I want an experienced sounding board to make sure what I say comes out right. 

In this case, I’m very specific what I want feedback on. For example, I might say that I’m not interested in feedback on things like body language – because I’ll be focusing on that later, but I do want feedback on if the flow makes sense. 

I also make sure I rehearse in front of someone whose feedback I trust. Someone who’s not just going to tell me to focus on something pointless, and someone who can share my vision of how I want to show up for my talk. 

How’s this for anxiety?

What I do instead:

Instead of practicing in front of friends and family, I RECORD MYSELF. 

  • You might be surprised, but that flashing red light puts on as much pressure as an audience would. Maybe even more. I find that knowing I’m recording myself makes me more likely to mess up, which then trains me to correct myself in the moment. 
  • It also allows me to give myself honest feedback. I actually give myself a grade on things like energy and clarity, as well as how it went overall. 
  • There’s another hidden bonus to recording yourself. You can replay it during off-times (like driving or walking) to help commit your presentation to memory. Don’t worry if your recording has slip-ups. Hearing these will make you that much more motivated to get it right come game time. 

I don’t run through the whole speech in one go

Okay, I try, but I don’t put too much pressure on myself to go completely error-free while I’m rehearsing. 

I used to force myself to start again from the beginning if I mess up, but that only made me feel frustrated. Now I can correct myself as I go, and trust that my excitement come game time will carry me through. 

Personally, I give THE MOST FOCUS to the beginning, the end and the transitions. Here’s why:

The beginning sets the pace. That’s where I want to get everyone excited, energized, and hooked in. 

Everything is so much easier if you get the beginning right, because you create the momentum – you just have to ride it now. 

Read more about how to start a speech to energize your audience

The ending is what most people remember. That’s why I make sure I finish really strong, and again, get people excited with a call to action. 

Read more about how to end a speech that inspires action

The transitions are important to rehearse too. I find that when I skip these, I tend to get stuck in the moment. Like, how do I tie what I just said with where I’m going next? 

This is also where people’s attention tends to wander away, so I make sure that my transitions make sense. 

Read more about speech transitions that keep your audience onboard

That’s not to say that the body of your presentation doesn’t need attention too, but if my intro went well, I can rely on my own momentum to keep it exciting. 

So if I’m finding that I can’t run through the whole presentation in one go, I just focus on the different parts with breaks in between. 


I make myself get in the zone

If you’re truly prepared, this is what will put the cherry on top. This looks different for everybody (and I usually customize this for clients) but here’s what I do for myself. 

For me, it’s really important to turn up energy and excitement as well as clarity when I speak in a high-stakes situation. (Be it a presentation, an interview, or a meeting.) 

  • There’s a certain unbeatable feeling that comes with giving a really good speech, and I make myself re-experience it prior to that talk and prior to rehearsing. 
  • I listen to some high-energy music and do some vigorous exercise, because it makes me feel more energetic. 
  • I make sure I look good. I generally don’t care about stuff like that, but getting dressed up and doing my hair is like a signal to my brain to fully bring it. 

Check out this playlist and this checklist for full-energy presentations to really pump up your public speaking merit badge preparedness!

So I hope your main takeaway was that if you want to really bring out your best for high-stakes presentations and interviews, you need to BE PREPARED. (And it doesn’t always look the way you thought.) 

Now I’d love to know if you have any takeaways about my public speaking merit badge? How do you prepare, and are you willing to try something new? Leave me a comment!

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