Preparing to think in order to prepare to speak: from routine to challenge

In the last couple of years, I’ve done around eighty talks on a variety of topics across a whole range of different settings. The biographical, professional and intellectual reasons why I’ve done so many are a topic for another post. What concerns me at the moment is how I prepare for them. To talk in public requires preparation and I’m in the process of experimenting with how I undertake that preparation. For much of this time I’ve relied on Artefact Cards for talks. As I described them in an earlier blog post recounting how I used them to collate ideas for my social media book:

The card themselves are designed to “help you craft better ideas, create new idea combinations by moving, shuffling, stacking, dealing and matching them”. In essence they’re just blank playing cards, with a look and feel which has obviously been the subject of much thought, which can be filled using the supplied Sharpie. They’re perhaps slightly overpriced but it’s hard to begrudge an individual creator this for a product that so much love has clearly gone into.

These small colourful cards allow you to scribble down a few ideas, depending on how large your writing is and how fine grained a sharpie you use. Sometimes I try and fit too much on the cards, prompting me to squint at them in the middle of a talk in a way which always makes me cringe when I see it on video. I have occasionally experimented with the extra large version of artefact cards, around twice the size, in the hope of countering the problem. Unfortunately, this tempts me to simply write more on the cards rather than writing a much larger version of what I would anyway.

My aspiration has always been to write a single word or phrase on then card, though sometimes I over-prepare. My general rule of thumb has been to prepare 8-12 cards for a 30 minute talk, though this varies. I usually mull over a talk in my mind for a couple of days, sit down with a cup of coffee and write out the cards in one go. I then practice once or twice to check something coherent comes out and that it remains roughly in the allotted time period. In this way, I usually prepare a talk in anything from one hour to four hours. If I’m travelling, I will usually run through them once at home before doing it again on the morning of the talk. I’ve written them on trains and planes, in bars and restaurants, but I prefer to prepare them on my own at my dining room table. For reasons I’ve never understood, I usually find myself doing them late in the afternoon at the end of my working day. Being on the verge of tiredness, propelled primarily by coffee, proves oddly fitting for what is essentially an exercise in externalising ideas from my mind to the cards.

When it works best, I barely look at the cards. It’s reassuring to have them there if I need them and their compact size, as well as the motion of dispensing with each card as I work my way through the talk, proves weirdly reassuring. This means I sometimes miss details, often not important ones but sometimes omissions I have regretted, such as explaining how much a particular person’s work influenced the analysis I’m offering, even if I’m not directly citing them. This is a useful reminder that improvisation can lead to things which are effectively ethical lapses, even if mild ones. Carefulness isn’t just a restraint on creativity and the impulse towards spontaneity can sometimes work against it.

This is the routine I’ve had for over two years. Sometimes it works well, other times it works brilliantly and occasionally it goes wrong for what are usually unrelated reasons. However in recent months, the routine has stated to feel, well, routine to me. The sheer familiarity of what I am doing has left the process failing to ignite my creativity in the same way it once did. What still works as a preparation to talk has stopped being reliable as a preparation to think. Furthermore, my ambition that the talks would sometimes be reusable has proved ill founded. I often can’t read my writing when I come back to it later, raising the question of how on earth I understood it at the time of giving the talk. Even if it is legible, the contents of the card seem inert to me, as if their intellectual vitality came from the context in which I used them, rather than the words written on them. I occasionally pick up individual cards which serve as prompts when creating new cards for upcoming talks. But I’ve never reused them in the way I once expected to, something which occasionally feels like a frustrated ambition when I notice my subliminal tendency to pile the cards up neatly in stacks for each talk as if I would one day pick them up again as a whole.

Nonetheless, some of the components have become so familiar that I am able to recite them off the top of my head. In fact, I occasionally do so involuntarily, slipping into fluent passages about a particular topic when I hit a keyword, in spite of it not being  part of expected or intended material for a talk. But more often they become hollowed out through over-use, echoing what I have said on past occasions with more force, rather than being iterations through which I get closer to what I am trying to say. The process reminds me of my experience with asexuality research, particularly formal writing and media work. In both cases, my invitations to write and speak came to outstrip what a relatively small empirical project had left me trying to say. In an important sense, I became worse with practice and I found the experience an unnerving one, ultimately motivating me to leave the topic in search of new challenges.

Now I find myself in a comparable predicament, feeling less confident about my public speaking as I become more experienced at it. The best way I can think to respond to this is to experiment. For this reason, I’ve decided to explore alternative methods of preparing for talks and plan to document the process as I go. Thus far, I’ve used blog posts for a keynote where I consulted a text which I had practiced before hand (40 mins and 4000 words) and a short talk where I simply used the post to order my thoughts (10 mins and 750 words). I since slipped back into the Artefact card routine out of convenience but over the course of the year, I plan to experiment with alternative methods. I’ve listed these in the thread attached to the Tweet below:

I hope to blog about the experiment but whether I feel comfortable writing about each individual case remains to be seen. This is potentially taking my commitment to honestly documenting my practice in public a little too far, given the potential for awkwardness with people who have invited me to speak and dishonesty if I exclude aspects which are relevant to the experiment in the name of ensuring good relations with people. But the possibility the experiment would encourage others to do the same is an appealing one and certainly counts in favour of sustaining radical transparency. I offer this blog post and subsequent ones in the spirit of scholarly craft and a commitment to open discussion of it.

2 thoughts on “Preparing to think in order to prepare to speak: from routine to challenge”

  1. Thanks for drawing my attention to the cards, Mark; I read this and the previous post and found them both interesting, and as someone with quite a serious stationery habit I will probably be buying some cards.

    Have you heard of a software package called Scrivener? It’s specifically designed for developing first drafts of extended pieces of writing, and was recommended to me by a friend who has used it for novels. The concept underlying its interface – very broadly, that you write chunks of text in one part of the interface and these are represented as cards which can be dragged around, shuffled and reordered in another part – seems quite similar to what you have been describing with the Artefact Cards. I have only toyed with it so far, as there is a learning curve and I want to find the right project to use as a means of learning it properly. I also like the physical nature of the cards, and would probably want to use a combination of the two. But I thought you might be interested to hear about the software since it’s a digital form of what you describe in these two posts.

  2. I’ve never managed to make it work for me! I find it a bit overpowered for how I write. These days I tend to write in Uylsses and then move into a word processor when it’s time to package things together.

    Good luck with the artefact cards – they’re wonderful things!

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