The airport approach to public speaking

I am sitting in the Geneva airport as I write this post. I am on my way to Barcelona for a great week of teaching and learning with my good friends and fellow public speakers, Conor Neill, Florian Mueck, Tobias Rodrigues and Tony Anagor.

Today, as always when I travel by plane, I arrived at the airport early. More than two hours before my departure, in fact. Now, the airport to Geneva is not that big and a flight from Switzerland to Spain is fairly routine. Furthermore, I only live 15 minutes by car—maximum—from the airport.

Two hours was way more time than I needed. In fact, as I write this post, I am sitting in a seat that looks very much like the ones in the photo. (But mine have armrests.) I am at the gate and waiting to board.

linesI am often kidded about my proclivity for arriving at airports early. Friends, family and even casual acquaintances wonder why on earth I want to arrive so early.

First of all, I travel frequently enough that I have conditioned myself to like airports. I mean, I have to spend time there, so trying to enjoy the experience (as much as possible) is preferable to the alternative. It’s like Mondays. Whenever anyone tells me with a sigh, on a Monday morning, that they hate Mondays, I remind them that Mondays constitute 1/7 (more than 14%) of our lives and that hating 14% of your life as a matter of routine is not a good idea.

But there is a more fundamental reason why I arrive early at the airport: I want to make sure that I get where I am supposed to go, especially when people are counting on me. Arriving early means that I can handle long lines at the baggage drop-off; I will not worry if people in front of me at security keep setting off the machine with coins and belts and whatnot; I can walk at a leisurely pace to the gate and not have to dash through terminals like I was in a parkour competition. (Perhaps I am being old-fashioned, I but consider it common courtesy not to be sweaty and out of breath when I sit beside someone on a plane.) In short, I have time to deal with situations that arise and I am not stressed.

And if, as is usually the case, I arrive with plenty of time to spare, I can find several ways to keep myself occupied: I can chat with my wife if we are traveling together; I can have a beer or coffee or something to eat; I can browse the book stores; I can read any number of things that I have loaded on my Kobo eReader; I can write a blog post (like this one); I can check my email; I can work on ideas for future speeches or presentations. In short, I can find something productive to keep me busy.

I follow the same approach when it comes to speaking. Ideally, I will visit the venue prior to the day of my speech or presentation to check things out. But even on the day, I will arrive 60 to 90 minutes before the event starts. Why? Because I want to make sure that everything is perfect.

What can you do when you arrive early? Plenty! For example:

  • Meet the organisers and any last-minute changes to the schedule
  • Meet the technician(s)
  • Connect your laptop to the beamer and make sure the presentation is running properly
  • Do a sound check
  • Prepare the speaking area (lectern, walking space, flipcharts, handouts, etc.)
  • Where necessary, arrange the seating the way you would like it
  • Adjust the lights and curtains
  • Adjust the temperature
  • Locate the rest rooms
  • Have drinking water available
  • Review the notes of your speech or presentation
  • Get a feel for the room

The last thing you want to be doing is scrambling to fix some problem with people settled in their seats and only minutes remaining before you are supposed to be on stage.

And when all of the above has been done and you still have time remaining, why not say hello to the first people who arrive? After all, they are there to see you and will almost certainly be happy to chat. Doing so helps you build rapport with some members of the audience even before you take the stage. And that is a good thing.

So the next time you have a speech or presentation, take my approach to airplane travel and arrive early. You’ll be glad that you did. Bon voyage!

Photo courtesy of Robert S. Donovan / Flickr

About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
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23 Responses to The airport approach to public speaking

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  5. Julie says:

    I always allow 2 days when traveling ‘cross country or to another country. I know that may be overkill, but it gives me peace of mind.

  6. Funny you should post this John. I have just returned from a month in the U.S. and on one of the many plane trips, I sat next to a man who had just attended a workshop organised by his company. The workshop, amongst other things, was on “confidence in public speaking”. He was in the seat next to me and buzzing with enthusiasm after his weekend. Despite the workshop having been organised in Vegas, he had been nowhere near the gaming tables! We sat and chatted about public speaking and I told him to check your blog out. So, if you see a new reader from Portland, Oregon on your blog’s stats, it will probably be him! Airports and travelling aren’t just a means of getting from A-B, they are indeed as you say, good opportunities to chat, to meet new people, to browse in bookstores, to prepare for the week ahead or sometimes simply – to chew the fat.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Hi Catherine and welcome back. Hope your trip to the US went well. Thanks for passing on the details of the blog to your travel buddy. Much appreciated!


  7. Excellent advice for every professional! I especially like “Meet the organisers and any last-minute changes to the schedule” as you never know if something has changed as in time or even what they expect you to do, and also “Get a feel for the room.” That’s enormously important in a venue of which you’re unfamiliar. Is it large or small? Would you need a microphone? Where would you stand? Where would your audience sit? Would they be sitting or standing? Are you expected to sit or stand as it can vary from one European country to the next?

    Great tips, John. 🙂

  8. P.S. Cathy Moore has an excellent, practical post about easily measuring the readability of what we write. Her own focus is e-learning, but her post also applies just as much to writing speeches and blogs:

  9. Interesting post John. I was intrigued that (as a personal account) it used “I” and “my” many more times than “you” and “your”.

    That really got me thinking, because I usually advise people to use “you” and “your” much more than “I” and “my”.

    Also fascinating was that the early part of the post was where all but one of the I/my occurrences were, and the end was where all but one of the you/yours were. (When reading the post, if you use your browser to highlight all instances of “I” followed by a space (rather than within words), and then all instances of “you”, you’ll dramatically see what I mean.)

    So what did I learn from that structure? Two things…

    The most effective stories are personal, so it makes sense to use “I” and “my” a lot at times.

    Switching to “you” and “your” makes the call-to-action steps much clearer for the audience.

    So thanks for the tips about getting to venues early, and (even more so) for wrapping them in a neat example of the key differences between stories and steps!

    • John Zimmer says:

      Hi Craig. Thanks for the message and for taking the time to look at the post so carefully. “I” think that part of the reason why “I” wrote most of the post from the first person perspective was because I actually was at the airport. But, more generally, I do think that the model of starting with oneself and then expanding to others—”I” to “you” (or “we”)—can be an effective structure, depending on the subject.



  10. At last a kin, arriving 2 hours early, the brunt of numerous jokes, we are not alone, thank you!

    I have one particular additional quirk that helps me every day. You know that great feeling when you travel, say from Geneva to New York, and you get those 6 extra hours of the time difference? You feel elated and that free lunch does exist. Yes, you have to go back home eventually, you know that, and then you will feel much less elated. Still, that first feeling of getting extra time is a boost, an energizer.

    I create that elated feeling every day: I set my bedroom clock 30 minutes later than it is. I know it is 30 minutes fast, but from the bed to the kitchen, via the bathroom, I gain 30 minutes every day. It’s that same feeling when you arrive in New York: energy.

    I go to bed 30 minutes later also, but that’s ok, it makes me sleep faster: “Oh no, 23:30 already…”

    I’ve been thinking of moving to an hour ahead. Any advice?

    • John Zimmer says:

      Hi Kenneth,

      Thanks for the comment. Glad to have others in the same camp!

      Getting up early is a great thing to do. I am definitely more productive in the morning than I am in the evening. For a time, I was getting up at 5:00 or 5:30 every morning but I lapsed over the summer with travel and work commitments. But I am now in the process of getting back to that schedule.

      For me, one of the key things is to use the extra time doing something for me. And I don’t mean reading email. One thing that I like to do is go for a four- or five-kilometre walk and listen to a good, constructive podcast. I get fresh air, exercise and mental stimulation in one go. It takes 30 to 40 minutes and when I get home, I have plenty of time to do some stretching or reading and still have a good breakfast. It is much more energising than sleeping until the last possible moment and then racing to get ready for work.

      If you want to get up an hour earlier, one approach is to take it in stages. The first week, get up 15 minutes earlier; the second week, 30 minutes; etc. In one month you will be there.

      Good luck!


  11. chris says:

    I agree John, and in my experience consistant punctuality gains one credibility and trust.

    Cheers, Chris

  12. Julie Zimmer says:

    This post is definitely YOU! As I drove you to the airport this morning, we talked about ways to keep busy while sitting and waiting at the airport. So, congratulations, I see that you’ve been productive, though I’m not surprised. Have a good week and hugs to everyone in Barcelona for me! xx

  13. Harley King says:

    Great article, John. I agree with everything you said including talking to the first participants to arrive.

  14. Conor Neill says:

    Welcome to Barcelona! It will be a great week 😉

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