My last post was about the inevitable stage fright that arises during presenting and public speaking. I mentioned that managing it takes some work, so listen up: Preparation is where most people go wrong. It is the biggest obstacle my clients face, by far, and the most tedious and difficult part of the journey to becoming great at speaking and presenting. But it’s also the most necessary component of the process–the magic bullet–so don’t ignore it.
Practice (a.k.a. rehearsal) results in a lot of cool things. And by practice, I mean saying it out loud.
- It lets you hear what you’re saying and opens your mind to new and better ways of saying it.
- It allows you to learn without memorizing.
- It is the antidote to stage fright.
Here is my best advice to making preparation and practice as painless as possible:
- Start to prepare the minute you get an assignment to speak or present. Work backward from the date of your speech. The closer you are, the more concentrated your prep time must be. Immediately begin to gather information: thoughts, facts, figures, stories, statistics, press reports, whatever. Jot down or record every thought that pops into your head because these thoughts can pop out just as quickly. You can edit later.
- Organize your thoughts. Start arranging your thoughts. Main message should be at the top. Then list key messages and below each key message, your supporting points and data. There should be a “rhythm” to your talk, so pepper your data with those stories, stats, humor that you gathered during step 1.
- Practice. There is no substitute for this. The best speakers set aside time to rehearse. Again, this means saying it out loud well in advance, not mouthing it on the plane, train or in the car on the way to the gig. That is way too late.
- Practice more than you think you have to. I tell my clients to use a ratio of 10:1; for every hour of speaking, practice for 10 hours. Think that’s outrageous? I’m being conservative. Winston Churchill is said to have practiced one hour for every minute of speech! That’s what I and most other professional speakers do. The higher the stakes, the more you should practice. But take heart: I consider all work geared toward delivering a presentation to be practice. (You know all those people walking down the street talking to themselves? They’re not crazy–they’re practicing!). Furthermore, as you gain experience, your practicing will become cumulative and reduce the time necessary to allocate to it.
- Use feedback tools. Practice using mirrors, audio/video recorders, or in front of a small group of trusted colleagues. Such tools won’t always be necessary, but as you gear up toward becoming a fantastic presenter, using they enable you to see yourself as others see you, a key strategy on the road to improving presentation skills.
Here’s a typical rehearsal schedule:
- One month out: Spend the first week gathering data, organizing and getting it all ready to rehearse.
- Three weeks out: Start saying pieces of it out loud. As the words roll off your tongue, be alert to how they feel. If, for example, a word or phrase feels awkward, change it.
- Two weeks out: Say the entire thing every day. Sometimes, you should start in the middle and go to the end first, because that part always tends to get short shrift.
- One week out: Every day, at least twice a day, say your speech out loud from beginning to end. Keep tweaking (you won’t be able to help it), but the bones should be there, so don’t make any major changes.
Is practice and rehearsal tedious and boring? Yes! But there is no other way to get really good at it.
These tips are just a start. There are many other considerations including assessing your audience, the venue, time of day, and level of formality. I’ll address these in a future post.
The great actor, Michael Caine, is supposed to have said: “Rehearsal is the work, performance is the relaxation.”