This year I’ve spoken at about a dozen or so conferences and another dozen or so meetings or classes or gatherings.

What I’ve started to notice is that I’m better unprepared.

That doesn’t mean I go in without any idea of what I’m going to talk about. And it doesn’t mean I may not have some slides to support the ideas (although lately I’ve been speaking slide-free). But it does mean that I’ve stopped practicing.

Web 2.0 in NYC

This year I spoke at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York. I gave two talks — an hour talk on “The Things We’ve Learned at 37signals” in front of a few hundred people and a 15 minute keynote about “Software Curators” in front of a couple thousand.

I’ve sorta given the Things We’ve Learned talk before, but it had been many months. I didn’t practice at all. I had some slides prepared that I’d used before, but I didn’t review them prior to going on.

I’d never given the Software Curator talk before, so I practiced and practiced and practiced the night before. I was manic about it. I ran through it a few dozen times.

When it came time to give the “Things We’ve Learned” talk I was relaxed. I looked at the slides with everyone else and I just said what came to mind. I think it was one of my better talks.

When it came time to give the “Software Curator” talk, I was nervous. Not because I was speaking in front of a couple thousand people, but because I kept thinking about what I was supposed to say based on hours of practice. I kept reliving the practice, not living the moment. I keep reaching for the script in my mind instead of my current thoughts. I wasn’t happy with the talk at all.


Last week I spoke at the IDEA conference in Chicago. I had no idea what I was going to talk about. The topic was just “Getting Real” so it was pretty open ended. I went up on stage, grabbed the mic, and just started talking. No idea what the next sentence would be. I wandered through a bunch of ideas that came to mind in the moment. I think it was one of my better talks.


And just yesterday I spoke at the BIF-4 conference. I spoke about the marketing inspiration we’ve taken from chefs who teach (cooking shows and cookbooks). We’ve written our own “cookbook” called Getting Real which shares everything we know with the reader like a chef who writes a cookbook shares their recipes with their audience. I didn’t really prepare for this talk either. I just took the mic, told a story, and let my thoughts flow freely. I think it was one of my better talks.

The more talks I give the more I notice that the less I prepare, the better the outcome. I think less about what I’ve told myself to say, and more about what I’m really thinking. I’m free to just say instead of just recite.

Of course you have to know your material. You have to believe in the stuff you’re saying. But if you know it, and you believe it, you may want to try not practicing it. Spontaneity, chance, flow, and a bit of fear may produce your best presentation. Being in the moment may surprise you.