Once again we find ourselves in the heart of the tradeshow season. This means many readers have been tasked with having to prepare and present a talk at a seminar, breakout, or other professional meeting. So, to paraphrase a well-known trope, “How do you become a great speaker? Practice, practice, practice.”
This is easier said than done. Practice is more than simply repetition. It isn’t enough to have your presentation firmly in your head. Your audience does not live in your head. You must speak it … out loud … on your feet. And not only must you do this many times, this rehearsal should be focused.
Many professional speakers rehearse up to one hour for each minute of their presentation content. Why such discipline? Because they know that “winging it” puts them at risk of not feeling focused and missing their objectives. You get one shot; make it a good one.
Some presenters express concern about “sounding too rehearsed,” when, in reality, the benefits of rehearsal, i.e.maximizing control of content, transitions, slides, and timing, far outweighs the small risk of sounding “canned.”
Here are 7 Guidelines for rehearsing your next presentation, so that you can enjoy the sense of control and confidence that comes from preparation and repetition:
- Don’t memorize … familiarize. Memorization is a specialized skill best attempted by professional actors (and even they can flub their lines!). Besides, trying to deliver a memorized talk is a sure fire way to sound insincere or “canned.” Instead, become deeply familiar with the meat of your talk–your core concepts and key messages–so that you can easily communicate these and not get hung up on reciting specific phrases. This way, if, for some reason, you go off the rails, you can regain control quickly because you know where you’re going.
- Perfect your opening and closing. Audiences tend to remember the first and last things said, so make it a priority to master your opening and closing remarks. Know exactly the first impression you want to make, the benefits you want the audience to consider and the actions, if any, you want them to take. And then be consistent in rehearsing these critical moments. Perfecting you open and close will give you peace of mind. Plus the audience will immediately sense your preparedness, relax, and allow you to lead them through your thoughts.
- Run with keywords. Speak your presentation aloud using note cards or slides as prompts (initially, anyway). Get to the place, through repetition, where all you need is the first word(s), or perhaps only an image, to immediately trigger the related remarks. If you’ve ever watched a presenter read his or her slides or notes word-for-word, you know the importance of rehearsing only with keywords.
- Simulate the actual event. If you’ll be standing during your presentation, stand when you rehearse it. If you’ll be wearing a suit, wear a suit. If you can run through your presentation in the space you’ll be giving it, or use the equipment, do so. Every detail that you “try on” in advance helps build your comfort level and confidence.
- Get an audience. Ask your colleagues to watch you rehearse. Invite them to give their feedback on your content, slides and delivery. This test audience can help you work out any bugs in the presentation. You’ll have the additional benefit of hearing yourself and feeling what it’s like to give the talk in front of listeners. On “game day,” it will all feel comfortably familiar.
- Skip the looking glass. Someone may tell you, “You should rehearse in front of a mirror.” Bad idea. Nobody can focus on their messages while at the same time eyeing their own reflection. If you want to see yourself, use video. Video playback is an excellent way to identify presentation strengths and weaknesses (which you can then use your rehearsals to work on). But when it comes to learning and internalizing your presentation, the following may be a more effective preparation tool …
- Listen. Consider audio-taping your rehearsals and listening to the playback as you drive, commute, or go for a walk (we know – few people like the sound of their own voice.). Listening helps reinforce the content and flow of your talk. It can also call your attention to opportunities to improve vocal performance, such as speaking faster or more slowly, eliminating “ah’s” and “um’s”, or using pauses more effectively. As you identify an area for improvement, try to correct it in rehearsal—and then re-record an improved version. Hearing yourself at your best, can be an affirming way to prepare your talk.
Rehearsal vs. Live Presentation
No matter the importance of rehearsal, many presenters feel that they performed better in the “real deal” than they did in the rehearsals. The most likely reason for this is that the presenter is finally able to connect with the audience, rather than having to imagine them as he or she did in rehearsals. The communication is now two-way. The audience is responding with smiles, nods, questioning looks, note-taking and other forms of feedback that have the potential to energize the presenter and spontaneously bring out more of him or her.
It’s far more enjoyable to present to a live audience than to an empty room or a room of colleagues you’ve asked to critique your presentation. But those necessary hours spent in rehearsal is what makes it possible to enjoy the live experience.
Make rehearsing your presentation a priority. The ROI will be; greater control of your material; increased confidence as a presenter; and a more engaged and appreciative audience.
Now — once more, with feeling!