Thursday, June 12, 2014

Public Speaking: What and How to Practice

Planning and practice are crucial to the success of your presentation, particularly if you’ve presenting on a new topic, in a new environment or in front of a new audience, or if the situation is high-stakes and high-impact.

Here are some guidelines for what and how to practice:
Practice the building blocks
Focus on your opening, conclusion and the transitions from one section to the next.  These are the building blocks of your presentation and if you are confident about them, it will be easier to deliver the rest of the presentation.  And you will use fewer pause words like “um” and “ah” to get from one section to another.

Practice is not about memorization
You’re not practicing to memorize word for word what you’re going to say. Memorizing can be disastrous because during the live presentation, you will be in your head trying to remember what comes next rather than in the moment engaging the audience. Practice to become comfortable enough with the information so that you can say it a variety of different ways with the same meaning.

Time your content
One of the worst mistakes a presenter can make is to go over the time limit, or said another way, to deliver an incomplete presentation because you ran out of time. Time your presentation so you get an average for how long it takes to deliver.  And if it’s too long, cut out content. 

Do a dress rehearsal
Practice is not sitting at your desk and flipping through your slides.  The concept of a dress rehearsal is borrowed from the theater.  A few days before the show opens, the performers get into costume and do a full run-through with full staging and orchestra.  The purpose of a dress rehearsal is to get comfortable not only with the content but also with the environment and logistics. 

If you can’t do your dress rehearsal in the actual room you will present in, practice in as close to the real environment as possible.  Figure out where you will stand or sit and how the slides will look from the audience’s point of view.  Understand the lighting and the sound.   

A dress rehearsal is also important if there are new elements such as:

  • New content that you’re just getting familiar with
  • Using a microphone or PowerPoint remote for the first time
  • A larger room than you’re used to
  • A more senior audience than usual
  • New technology such as live streaming or video conferencing
  • Having to dress in more formal clothes, such as a suit
Now you might say, “My presentation is 45 minutes.  I’m not going to stand up and do a 45-minute dress rehearsal.”  If the presentation is important enough (high-stakes with potential for a big positive – or negative – impact on your job and career) and you are motivated, yes, I think a full 45-minute dress rehearsal would be very helpful.

And with each presentation you prepare for and give, you will get more comfortable with your content and the room environment, and require less practice time.

Yes, it takes time to practice, but it’s time well spent.  The more time you spend upfront on your practice, the more you will be able to deliver your presentation with confidence and clarity.  You’ll be able to focus on connecting with the audience rather than worrying about what could go wrong or a logistical detail such as how to use the microphone.

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