So, I’d like to share an update on my first professional presentation.

Several months ago, I shared with several friends at Toastmasters that I was interested in professional speaking. As both friends and mentors, they encouraged me, and within two weeks I had an email in my box from the Indian Trails Public Library in Wheeling.

The library was interested in a presentation on “active listening,” and I’d been recommended. Would I be interested? Well, certainly! Of course, there’s the question of what exactly “active listening” meant, but we were months away from the presentation – and it sounded like a skill I’d like to cultivate regardless.

As it turns out, I was already an accomplished active listener. I just wasn’t aware that it had a name. At its most basic, active listening requires us to listen to understand, rather than listening just enough to form an intelligent reply. I found a great deal of information online about the roots and history of the skill, what steps were recommended, and how individuals can become more effective.

From those multiple sources and my own experience, I pulled together a script of around 4,750 words over the course of a week. Based on research, that should take about an hour – the agreed-upon time for a speech. When I rehearsed the speech as written a few times, it came in closer to 50 minutes, so I re-worked some sections, moved some pieces around, and finished preparation over a month in advance.

As the deadline grew closer, I became more nervous. It was obvious that I wasn’t going to be word-for-word with the speech, but I was nailed at some level to the words I’d so carefully crafted. I remembered the last long-form speech I gave, in which I repeatedly returned to my notes and – at least to my mind – appeared less prepared for it.

So I decided to take a different track. I went through the speech as written and distilled it into a two-sided list of bullet points, each with a quick reminder of the topic I wanted to cover. I also pulled four of the most important paragraphs and put them as “pull quotes” on a separate sheet of paper, then noted on the bullet points where I should quote those – and worked to memorize just those four.

Based on the topic – active listening – I made a point of not creating any visual presentations. I wanted to show how powerful the art of listening is, when there are fewer distractions between yourself and the person speaking. Finally, I ran off a one-sheet page for people to take home, listing the most important aspects of the speech.

I arrived about 40 minutes early, not uncommon for a guy who gets lost easily, so I could get some time with the admins and review the room. We figured out together how to lower the shades, adjust the temperature, and she informed me of a wrinkle I hadn’t known – most of those signed up were not born here, and English was their second language.

This is what could be called a curve ball. Fortunately, I work with several ESL folks at the dayjobbery, and am comfortable watching my speech for idioms. Watching my vocabulary is trickier, but hey, who doesn’t love a challenge?

As it turns out, we had 26 people signed up, of whom 10 arrived. That’s not a disappointment – ten people in a theatre hall is sad, but ten people in a conference room is okay. It allowed a bit more intimacy, and allowed me to take more questions that I might otherwise.

As it turns out, I had no trouble making the 60 minute mark. In fact, I was able to cut a few of the fluffier moments in the speech, which I think added value overall. We had a 30-minute question and answer period, in which I provided more individual feedback and recommendations. I was careful to preface those with “It’s my opinion,” or “When this comes up, I will usually …” rather than passing it off as carefully researched work.

In the end, I believe it went well! Everyone stayed until the end, and a few thanked me personally, which is nice. My library contact and I spoke for a while and she had pleasant things to say in my feedback form. We’ll be talking again about future work, and I enthusiastically agreed that she could pass my name around the library districts.

In the end, it was a modest start, but a good one! I’m pleased with the result and with look forward to speaking more frequently in the future.