This past week I was at various events where people were giving presentations, talks or running workshops. What I found surprising was that all of them told me that although they knew what they were going to cover, they hadn’t practiced lots as they didn’t want to come across as ‘stiff and rehearsed’. These people are not exceptional. I hear it many times over.
In my line of work I come across lots of people who tell me they don’t enjoy giving presentations and that they are not good at it. When I delve into why and what happens leading up to their talks, most would give me some version of the following situation:
16 days before the talk
they find out they have to do a talk. They decide they will deal with it later, they might make a rough plan of what they should do and will do it when they have more time. ‘I’ll do a much better job if I am inspired’
15 days before the talk
there’s plenty of other things to be getting on with while waiting for inspiration to come. ‘I’ll deal with it later’
11 days before the talk
they know they should start preparing, it’s at the back of their mind, but they get on with other work instead. ‘I must remember to write my talk’
3 days before the talk
they open up their PowerPoint and then look through the previous presentations, find one that is near enough, modify the slides and breath a momentary sigh of relief. ‘I’ve got it done -phew!’
The day before the talk
they go through the slide deck a few times- thankfully most of the points are on the slides to help jog the memory. ‘I better not practice too much or else it will sound rehearsed. I want to come across natural’
The day of the talk
Nervous, didn’t sleep well the night before. Get into the hall, get a little nervous as they walk on stage and speed through the process, barely pausing for breath. ‘I’m glad I don’t have to do that all the time. I’m just not good at talking in front of large groups’
That is like Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic saying ‘I know how to play tennis, I’ll just do a little warm up and get on the court’. Actors rehearse for days before going on the stage, and then rehearse in between performances. Even London bus drivers practice driving buses before they drive their passengers around and spend time learning their route (I know it doesn’t always feel like it!). Yet, many people assume that speaking and giving presentations requires little if no preparation or practice. After all we speak everyday, we don’t need the practice, or do we?
All the workshops and training I deliver I have practiced over and over again. If I can’t find people to practice with, I will record myself going through the workshop. I then pull apart different aspects of my delivery from my body langauge to my intonation. What this has meant is that I am able to speak and present myself in a natural way. I can be spontaneous because I am not worried I will lose my way. If it feels weird or unnatural, I know I have not practiced enough. Federer and Djokovic don’t have to worry about where the ball is returned as they have practiced for all the eventualities. Stage actors don’t come across unnatural, even though it is ‘rehearsed’.
At the beginning of last week, I was lucky enough to go to a speaker training workshop run by Topher Morrison, a professional speaker who gives talks all around the world and also trains professional speakers. He suggested that for every 5 minutes on stage, you should spend 20 hours practicing. I think some people thought that number a little high but that sounds about right to me.
So how can you prepare and practice so it makes a marked difference?
Here are my top 5 tips:
- Start preparing as early as you can- find out about your audience, who else is speaking, where you will be delivering it, etc. Don’t leave it until the last-minute.
- Prepare your content by focussing on what the audience needs (wants) to hear, not just what you want to talk about.
- If you are giving a talk, practice in the mirror first, then scale up- your office, boardroom and then the room you will actually deliver in (if possible). Do the same scaling up with your audience- do it in the mirror first, then colleagues you get on with, colleagues you don’t know.
- If possible, learn your talk so that you can deliver it without looking at notes.
- If you are going to use notes, PowerPoint presentations or charts, then make sure you practice with these. Get familiar with the clicker if you are using one (I recommend you buy your own, so you know exactly how it works).
Feel free to share your experiences in the comments section and do let me know if I can help you with any upcoming talks, presentations or pitches.