I’ve never really felt comfortable with public speaking, but I’ve done enough presentations and toasts that I've worked out how to cope with the process. They've all been small-time gigs, for sure.
Tim Urban gave a TED talk last year and wrote about the experience. Other than the experience of actually doing the talk, there are two major themes to his piece, options for how to present, and how procrastination has an impact.
Urban’s three broad presentation categories (in order of increased amount of preparation necessary) are: winging it (#1), talking through a set structure (#2), and following an exact script (#3). Of course, these aren’t discrete points, but a spectrum, although he does divide #3 further into three parts: reading off a script (#3A), barely memorizing (#3B), and memorizing to the point where the talk can almost be on autopilot (#3C).
When I got to this point in the article, I immediately recognized myself as #2, although for complex presentations, I go part way to #3A and keep a list of talking points, but not a full script. As it ends up, Urban says that #2 talks end up being the least boring to an audience while requiring the least amount of preparation of all the other styles except winging it. In addition, it has a low or moderate risk of problems arising during the talk.
He then explains how the risk of disaster for #3 talks is extremely low if you have a script, becomes very high once you stop using paper and have the talk barely memorized, then decreases back to low when you have it well-memorized.
My most recent experience with public speaking was at Kellen and Noël’s wedding, where I gave a toast. My amount of preparation was again #2 since I knew the broad strokes of what I wanted to say, but for some parts, I went between #3B and #3C, since I wanted to make sure there were certain stories which came out in a certain way. I did refer to notes once, and there were a couple small details I forgot to use, but I do think it came out fine.
I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in being good at putting things off until later. Urban admits to being able to delay things until literally the last minute; he ended up ad-libbing the last part of his talk at the rehearsal in front of the TED staff one month before the actual talk. Even a few days before the presentation, he was honing the first part (which was already pretty solid, well on the way from #3B to #3C) while still changing the last third, making that part repeatedly go back to #3A; it continued to change until the day before his talk. He ended up rehearsing the last part for four hours the day he was to give his presentation and got it past #3B.
Things turned out fine; he got through to the end of his talk without any major problems.
When preparing to speak, I tend to try to think about what I want to say well in advance. I let things stew for a while, but it takes time before I settle on a story arc. From that point, I work on filling in details, which often forces me to change the general outline (usually the order of main points). If the talk is short enough (such as in a toast), I don’t make many, if any, notes, favoring repetition to not only help me get the gist of the talk down but also as a way to refine; if I keep forgetting a point and things work OK without it, is it necessary in the first place?
When actually giving the talk, I try as much as I can to think of it as a conversation. It doesn’t eliminate stiffness or completely take the nervousness out of my voice, but I think it helps.