How to Practice Your Presentation
It’s better to sweat in practice than to bleed in battle.
By John Millen
Any professional who expects to excel at an activity must take it seriously. That’s why:
• Elite athletes condition themselves and practice their sport endlessly, picking up thousands of reps to build muscle memory.
• Special operations forces train on the same few actions relentlessly, often thousands of times to ingrain their instant reactions.
• Emergency room doctors go deep in crisis medicine training to deal with an unending line of unexpected traumas.
While giving business presentations is not nearly as critical or heroic as these professions, leaders have a lot on the line with important speaking events, virtual or in-person. The ability to communicate is often the one factor that makes or breaks their careers.
And given the stress and anxiety that many people feel during high-stakes presentations, they might actually have the feeling of life-or-death situations.
That’s why it’s surprising that, when it comes to giving presentations, a remarkable number of business leaders put their communications off until the last minute and will rehearse little, if at all.
Practice most important success factor
This is sad because, in my experience over the past 20 years, rehearsal is the most important success factor in building confidence, reducing anxiety and delivering successful presentations.
Some leaders will say that they don’t want to rehearse because it will reduce their spontaneity, being in the moment with the audience. This is a myth.
The fact is that the more you prepare, the more you rehearse, the more spontaneous you can be. The leaders you see who seem the most spontaneous in their talks are generally those who have done the most preparation -- and specifically the most rehearsal of their material.
One of my clients, the General Counsel of a national company, emailed me about how she handles rehearsals: “My rule of thumb is to rehearse the remarks at least three times. If you can do that, you will be familiar enough with your remarks that you can navigate them effectively and genuinely.” And, she added, “Obviously, the more significant the presentation, the more rehearsal.”
Here are a few recommendations for making the most of your rehearsal time:
1. Rehearse out loud
I have far too many clients who tell me that they did rehearse their presentation -- that they’ve been thinking about it over and over in their minds. I quickly dissuade them of the notion that they’ve rehearsed.
This is the rule: It is not rehearsal unless the words come out of your mouth.
2. Video record yourself
Seeing yourself give your presentation can be extremely enlightening.
For a virtual presentation turn on Zoom or your platform of choice and record yourself giving your talk.
For an in-person presentation set up your phone. If you can go to the actual room where you’ll present, then do so. Deliver your presentation, as you will that day; talk the way you’ll talk; walk the way you’ll walk; stand and deliver.
If you can’t get the actual room, set up some environment that closely resembles the space. Turn on the camera and go through your paces.
3. Audio record yourself
If for some reason you’d rather not see yourself on video, at least make an audio recording of yourself delivering your presentation. Listen for what you think are your challenges, but with limited time, pay particular attention to your vocal energy, your pace, and where you stumble in transition. These are high-value targets when you’re time-crunched.
4. Use your drive time
If you happen to be on a drive in your car it can be a great time to practice your speech. Give it out loud as you drive. Breathe deeply and project your voice as loud as you want. Try saying certain phrases with different emphases.
I have a business leader client who was a singer in a garage rock band. He likes to sing his speeches in the car as a way of practicing. That’s got to be fun to see on the freeway.
You can also spend your time in the car listening to an audio recording of yourself on your phone. That recording could be of you delivering the speech, or of you reading your presentation. This will help you reinforce your lines, building your mental muscle memory.
5. Deliver to a 'focus group'
Over the years, I’ve tested new keynotes with focus groups, a few people representative of the larger target population.
You can do the same thing with your presentation. Jump on a virtual meeting platform and run through your talk.
As a professional speaker, I’ve done this myself before major new presentations. I give my talk and use my slides exactly the way I intend to on the Big Day.
Then I ask for specific feedback, with substantive questions like “What is the main message?” “What am I asking you to do (call to action)?” “Did you feel any specific emotion during the talk?” “Do you remember any stories?” Then I’ll ask for one positive comment and one challenge that I could improve on.
Sometimes with a group of people, I’ll actually put together a one-page PDF of questions for them to email back so that they will feel more comfortable answering and they won’t influence each other with groupthink.
This helps a lot because you’ll get feedback to improve your presentation and you’ll also feel more confident because you’ll already have given the talk to the audience, just in a smaller setting.
6. Schedule practice time
Finally, and possibly most important, schedule your rehearsal. As you know, anything that is critical has to go on the calendar, or it will never happen.
Make communications a priority. With deliberate practice, you’ll feel and project confidence as you present yourself and your message to your most important audiences.