For Better Content, Let It Simmer

There’s a crucial step I use for every presentation and speech I ever give. I call it “the simmer.” In cooking, this term means to reduce the temperature and let whatever you are preparing wait awhile. It will usually reduce the volume and thicken whatever is in the pot. It’s a slow process, but one that is reliant on the wait to produce something great. I use this same concept in preparing for every speaking situation, too.

Whenever possible, I give myself about one week to allow my presentation to simmer. This step in the process comes in between content development and practice. After I’ve done the work of gathering and writing my material, I take a week to let those ideas develop. Simmering my content gives me perspective and clarity that can’t be forced or rushed, and it can’t be gained any other way. During my week of simmering, I’m able to see that some parts of my presentation need to be taken out, some parts need to be expanded and clarified, and I always think of new and better ways to express ideas. I love the way The New York Times essayist Tim Kreider puts it: “The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”
Default Mode Network
I know you’ll be shocked to learn that “simmer time” is not a scientific term. However, scientists do study a similar concept called default mode network (DMN). DMN is one of the two main methods for processing information. There’s the method that you use when you are working or learning, and then there is DMN, when your brain turns inward. You may have noticed DMN when you end up driving somewhere you hadn’t intended, as if on default. DMN doesn’t mean your brain shuts off or stops, though. Instead, it is working hard to process what you’ve learned, reflect on the interactions you’ve had, solve problems, and make vital and creative connections. Research by Johnathan Schooler, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Mindfulness and Human Potential, showed that 30% of creative ideas originated when the subjects were thinking about or doing something unrelated to their jobs.

Intentional Simmering
Think back to simmering your content the way you simmer a sauce. Simmering is on the recipe instructions as one of the steps in the process. You can’t skip over it or the end result won’t be optimal. Because I’ve come to understand simmering as part of the process, I will intentionally schedule quiet times to think about my presentation or let my mind wander. I’m a type-A, task-oriented scheduler. So just like I would set times in planner or my phone calendar for a meeting, I set “simmer time appointments” for myself. I have to remind myself that this intentional quieting of my brain is a crucial part of preparing a great presentation.

If I find that scheduling quiet time is tough during a particularly busy week, I will record myself speaking through my outline and will listen to what I have developed while I drive to and from work. These intentional times of listening to my material have helped make my presentation better every time. For example, during the simmering week for the last presentation I gave, there was a metaphor that I had initially come up with that seemed so clear and important. But after I sat with it for a while, that same stroke-of-genius metaphor began to feel superfluous and even disconnected from what I really wanted to communicate. So I took it out of the presentation and exchanged it for something much better.

Try simmering your content for your next presentation. While it might feel like an inactive, non-step at first, I think you’ll ultimately be surprised by what gets illuminated and uncovered and changed during the wait.

If you want to learn more about the recipe for a great presentation, check out our online presentation skills course.

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