Descartes didn't quite say that, but you say it all the time. "Absolutely. I practiced," you'll tell me. And I'll look at you, skeptical. That's because, as a Washington, DC-based speaker coach and presentation trainer, I've heard every dodge in the book about whether and when you practiced your talk, speech, or presentation.
Despite the fact that there are 7 advantages for the speaker who practices, in reality, most speakers flip through their slides or their notes, reading silently to themselves...decide they're going to rely on the text or the slides, and don't bother speaking them out loud...or "practice" sitting at their desks, even when they're going to be standing up and moving around during the presentation. It's almost worse if you've given this presentation or a variant before, or more than once. "I got this," you say. "I'll just go out there and kill it." There's a special hell waiting for that experienced speaker, who may get on stage and find out that a little practice would have smoothed out the rough edges created by such assumptions.
None of that equals practicing your speech, in my book. I suspect part of the problem is that many people don't really know how to go about practicing a speech or talk, or are afraid of what they'll find out. But as I say in my training workshops, wouldn't you rather mess up here with me, instead of before your audience? Here are 8 effective ways to learn and try out your presentation so that you'll look as if you didn't need any practice:
- Stand up and move around: You'll look, sound and feel more energized if you stand while you practice--which is why I encourage speakers to stand even if they're speaking as part of a panel, and when they're on the phone for conference calls or media interviews. Sitting drains energy, crowds your diaphragm and makes your voice less lively. Practicing the physical movement and stance for your talk helps you develop a kinetic memory of the movements you'll make, and that will contribute to your ability to pull off a smooth-looking presentation.
- Speak it out loud: Even if you punt and sit at your desk to practice, do it out loud. There's no other way to find out whether you stumble over a particular phrase or can't pronounce something easily, in which case a rewrite or workaround can be done. You'll also get a sense for how speaking makes you feel--whether you tense up, speak too fast or too softly, or some other issue.
- Practice without the text: If your eventual goal is to speak without a text, start weaning yourself from your notes during several practice sessions. Come up with an outline made up of just keywords for each section, and choose keywords that are more vivid and specific than general and abstract ("hammer story" instead of "lessons learned"). At first, put those keywords in a short list on a whiteboard or flipchart set across the room where you can glance at them as cues. Eventually, try practicing out loud without the cue cards.
- Practice in place: Many of us practice in conference rooms, offices and hotel rooms. But if those aren't like the space in which you will be speaking, find something closer to the actual setting for at least one practice. Using a lectern? Find a lectern. In an auditorium? Borrow one. Then make sure you scope out the actual space ahead of time--in photos on the web, in person an hour before--so you know what to expect, even if you can't practice there.
- Record yourself on video: Grab a friend or kindly colleague and ask her to record your practice--use a cellphone camera, or an ultralight camcorder like the Sony Bloggie. Then upload and review your video practice, using my checklist of things to look for on that video of your speech, from gestures and vocal errors to movement and tone. Note two or three things you want to improve, then practice another round with recording to see your progress.
- Listen to an audio delivery: Particularly if you start with a written text and want to memorize it, it's helpful to record audio of yourself reading the text in a lively way. Mark up the text in advance to give yourself cues about pronunciation, emphasis, pauses and up- or downturns in your tone. Then load that audio into your phone, iPod or a CD to play in the car or kitchen, and listen to it, over and over. One client of mine does this while running on a treadmill; another, in the car on her commute home; yet another, while walking on the beach. It's a great way to practice that will let you focus on the sound of your voice and your vocal variety, and help familiarize you with the words you want to say.
- Grab a test audience: I've coached several speakers this year for TEDMED, TEDx or TED-like talks, and many of them have taken the time to practice in front of test audiences drawn from their work colleagues or accommodating family members. Some chose listeners who could offer perspective on their topic, or who resembled the eventual audience, to gauge responses. Many of them, knowing their colleagues wouldn't be able to see the talk in person, did a "friends and family" preview of the talk, the closest thing to a live run-through, just before departing for the actual talk. It's a great way to give your colleagues an insider's preview while getting some real-time practice in.
- Work with a coach: When I do one-on-one coaching for a speaker, much of what we do involves practice, as well as recording and feedback. Usually, I do at least one in-person coaching session so I can better see movement, expression and other delivery issues, then we follow up on Skype or phone and email, sending practice videos back and forth for review and critique. The speaker also works in between our sessions, focusing on a list of action items we put together ahead of time. The goal is to structure the practices so that the field of issues to tackle gets smaller and smaller as we get closer to the day of the speech or presentation, which lets us focus on nuances and grace notes to really make the talk sing. For many speakers, working with a coach is a great way to stay focused in practice while getting constructive and private feedback.
If you found this post useful, please subscribe or make a one-time donation to help support the thousands of hours that go into researching and curating this content for you.