Supercompetent Speaking: The Value of Rehearsal

By Laura Stack

As a business professional, would you ever send the first draft of a report to your boss or client? Probably not; no doubt you’d want to smooth out the rough patches and check it over for typos first. Most of us don’t even let e-mails go without making sure we’ve done our best to communicate both cleanly and efficiently. Polishing our written work is accepted as a necessary part of doing business.

It’s ironic, then, that some people are willing to wing it when it comes to verbal presentations, preferring to work from the stylistic equivalents of first drafts instead of refining them through repeated rehearsal. A few get so caught up in preparation that they simply run out of time to rehearse. Others believe they already know the subject so well that they don’t need to; and some just want to seem fresh and spontaneous. But not rehearsing is simply a bad idea.

Obviously, off-the-cuff presentations aren’t impossible, but they’re hard to get just right; and that can limit their effectiveness. Rehearsal can boost the success of even the most casual presentations, and it’s essential for the big ones. Indeed, the more important the presentation, the longer and more often you should rehearse.

Now, I’m not saying your presentations must be perfect; no one expects that. But they should be as nearly perfect as you can make them. That requires practice, often copious amounts of it. Rehearsal not only helps you become more familiar with your material before the big event, it allows you to:

• Ensure that you can speak coherently on the subject.
• Improve your delivery and content.
• Tinker with transitions and timing.
• Decrease anxiety and calm your fears.
• Build a sense of confidence and certainty.

As you rehearse, keep these pointers in mind:

Play to your strengths. Discover what works best in your presentation, and do more of it. Don’t waste too much time trying to fix what doesn’t work; eliminate it instead.

Don’t learn your presentation by rote. Working completely from a script, or simply reading your presentation to the audience, robs you of flexibility. Be prepared to vary your presentation according to the circumstances. The only exceptions here are your introduction, close, and transitions; those should be memorized.

Rehearse mentally. Some people argue that mental rehearsal is almost as effective as verbal rehearsal; and certainly, rehearsing something silently is a good way to warm yourself up and familiarize yourself with the subject. When you do conduct a silent rehearsal, be sure to conjure up the environment in your mind as vividly as possible, including location, audience, and ambience.

Then deliver the presentation within your mental construct in real time, so you can test the flow and further internalize the ideas and message. Review your graphics, and give some thought as to how long each of your sections should be.

Rehearse aloud. As valuable as mental rehearsal can be, it can’t replace rehearsing out loud. Public speaking is a physical act, requiring “muscle memory,” if you will, in order to ensure success. You achieve muscle memory by doing something over and over until it sticks.

Rehearsing aloud also allows you to knock the rough edges off a presentation, by experimenting with timing, flow, tone, specific terms, special emphasis, body language, and more, so you can decide what works best. Plus, it acts as a memory enhancer, and helps you better visualize key points.

Record yourself. Use a tape recorder or video camera to record your complete presentation, and then study it carefully, dissecting it point by point. With an audio recording, you can do this anywhere, even in your car. I’d reserve video recording for your bigger presentations, because you may not have time to bother with it for the smaller ones.

Finish each rehearsal completely. Mental or verbal, don’t stop a rehearsal in the middle, no matter how badly you err. You need to proceed all the way through to get a good idea of how it flows. Later, you can go back and fix the places where you stumbled.

Do a full dress rehearsal. Once you’ve gotten to the point where you can make your presentation effectively, perform a complete dress rehearsal. Bring a clock, so you can time yourself. Get as close as you can to the real event, right down to practicing in the same room you’ll actually perform in, if possible, with all your visual aids in place—and a volunteer audience, if you can swing that.

Seek feedback. You’re rarely the best judge of your own work, so ask friends, family, and colleagues to provide constructive critiques of your presentation—that is, evaluations that are honest, objective, and specific in terms of both content and delivery. It’s hard to tell what’s going to work, sometimes…which can be disastrous if you wait for the live event to try it out.

About the Author:

Laura Stack has consulted with Fortune 500 corporations for nearly 20 years in the field of personal productivity and is the best-selling author of several books, including “Supercompetent.” She is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP) and the 2011-2012 president of the National Speakers Association (NSA). Stack’s productivity-improvement programs have been used worldwide at companies such as Starbucks, Wal-Mart, Cisco Systems, and Bank of America. She is the creator of The Productivity Pro planner by Day-Timer. For more information, visit  Reprinted from Training Magazine.

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