“It’s better to sweat in practice than to bleed in battle.”
-- Ancient Proverb
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. 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.
Rehearsal Most Important Factor
This is sad because, in my experience over the past 20 years, rehearsal is the most important 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. It allows them to speak from their hearts as leaders.
When I wrote last year about the importance of preparation, one of our readers, the General Counsel of a national company, wrote back 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:
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.
Video Record Yourself
Seeing yourself give your presentation can be extremely enlightening. The General Counsel I mentioned had also written about the importance of this: “I advise folks to be videotaped whenever they can. As difficult as it is to watch yourself on tape, I think it is the single most effective educational tool there is for public speaking.”
Today, there is no excuse. You have a smartphone ready to record you in HD. 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.
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.
Use Your Drive Time
If you have a commute, 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 emphasis. 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.
Deliver to a Focus Group
Over the years, I’ve tested messaging with focus groups, a few people representative of the larger target population.
You can do the same thing with your presentation. Why not gather a few of the people who will be the audience for your delivery, especially if you’re using new material.
I’ve done this myself before major new presentations. I ask them to come listen to my talk and we have lunch brought in for everyone.
Instead of having hundreds of people, I’m presenting to 5 to 10 people around the boardroom table. I give my talk and use my slides in 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 one page of questions like this, so that they will feel more comfortable answering and they won’t influence each other with group think.
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.
Put it on the Calendar
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 rehearsal, you’ll feel and project confidence as you present yourself and your message to your most important audiences.
Photo Credit: Benjamin Child