How To Practice & Rehearse Before Your Next Presentation

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Today, we’re going to be talking to you all about how to practice and rehearse your talk. Now, anytime you’ve seen a great speaker, a great performer, sometimes we just have this misconception that they just get up there and it just flows out of them. They just nail it. They just get up there and they just wing it. They just shoot from the hip.

But that is not true. Professional speakers don’t get up and just wing it. What makes a speaker great is oftentimes the work that you don’t see. It’s the work behind the scenes. It’s the hours and hours and hours of practice rehearsal, of preparation, so that by the time they get up on stage what they’re presenting has been dialed in. It has been honed. It has been crafted.

Think about why you should rehearse. Well, first of all, rehearsing happens in a lot of different activities in life. Sometimes we think a good speaker doesn’t have to rehearse. They don’t need to rehearse, they’re just good. But I mean, rehearsing happens a lot.

Like even in professional sports rehearsals happen, practices happen, walkthroughs happen. The Super Bowl is coming up in a couple of days. These are some of the best professional athletes on the planet, and yet leading up to the Super Bowl, they’re going to practice.

They’re going to have walkthroughs. They’re going to have drills, they’re going to be working, defining what it is that they’re getting ready to do in preparation for the big game.

You know, if you’ve ever taken, maybe in college or university, you took the ACT or SAT, some type of a big test – maybe you’ve taken some type of big law or medical or accounting test – a lot of times you take practice tests to get used to it.

Before you have a wedding, oftentimes you’ll have a rehearsal and just walk through and make sure everybody knows what they’re doing, who’s supposed to stand where, who’s supposed to say what, when, all that stuff.

Actors in plays, they practice, they go over and over and over the material. So again, by the time they get up and they deliver, they entertain, they act, they do whatever that thing is they’re doing. They feel more confident.

Practicing is really oftentimes what makes a great speaker great on stage because winging it leaves you scattered, it leaves you unorganized. You’re not taking the time to think through your thoughts or where you want to go or where you want to take the audience. But practicing also helps you to reduce those nerves, that anxiety.

One of the illustrations I gave you was taking a test. You know, you remember in high school or college, when you would take a test or a pop quiz and you could just show up and they could pass out a test and immediately, if you haven’t studied, you haven’t prepared, you haven’t looked over your notes or reviewed or anything, you start feeling anxious. You start feeling nervous because you didn’t put in the work.

You should be feeling nervous, you should be feeling anxious. But when you put in the work and you’ve practiced and you’ve prepared, then you go in feeling confident. You go in feeling comfortable about the test because you put in the work, and so practice helps to reduce those nerves and that anxiety.

Practicing also helps you to become more fully present with the audience. Have you ever listened to a speaker before? And you can tell they’re just trapped in their own head. They are so deep in their own mind thinking about what they’re going to say next.

Any little thing that could happen in the room could just throw them off the rails, just completely derail and distract them because they’re thinking through a script.

The more you practice, again, the more confident, comfortable you become with your own material, which allows you to be more fully present with the audience, creating a better speaking experience.

And now, why should you rehearse? Because when you’re speaking live, you don’t get a second take. Typically, whenever I’m doing these podcasts, I try to just do them in one take. I jot down some notes, jot down some thoughts.

I try to just speak and I try to just wing that, which again, I don’t recommend when you’re actually speaking. But when you’re speaking live, you don’t get a second take. I could stop right now. I could go back, I could edit it, I could tweak it. I could make it sound all pretty and professional and sexy and all that jazz.

But whenever you’re speaking live, you don’t get a second take. You don’t have another opportunity to go back and go, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say that.”

You want to practice, you want to rehearse and you want to go through it. So you’ve already built what you’re going to say. Rehearsal is really just kind of internalizing how you’re going to actually deliver it.

Read Your Talk Out Loud, All the Way Through

Let me walk you through the process here. This is the process that I follow. I don’t think that there’s a perfect way to do this. There’s not one way that you have to do this, but this is just kind of my own personal rehearsal and practicing process for speaking. So the first thing I do is I take my entire talk . . .

Now, what I typically do is I would manuscript my talk out. Again, everybody’s different. Some people will just prefer to outline it, but I prefer to manuscript it. Now, I’m not trying to learn a manuscript verbatim. I’m not trying to get that thing down word for word like it’s a script. I just want to know it. I want to know where I’m going. I want to know what it is that I want to communicate.

I’ve manuscripted the entire talk out. And then what I’m going to do, the first step is I’m going to read that entire talk out loud. Now again, not just internally, not just to myself, but out loud. And so this is the chance to kind of read through the entire talk as one continuous piece, because most of the time when you’re working on a talk, maybe you’re working on it over the course of a couple of days or a couple of weeks or a couple of months, you’ve probably broken it down into various sections.

Maybe you’ve worked on a little bit of this section, then a little bit of that section. This is your chance to read it through as one continuous piece, and so you’re able to ask yourself questions like, how does this even flow together? Does this seem smooth? Are the transitions smooth as I’m going from this point into this point? Is that making sense? Is it really clear what this talk is about? Do the stories that I’m telling, the humor that I want to use, does it fit, does it support the main point of the talk. Whenever I’m reading this through, I’m just trying to get a vibe of how everything works there.

This is my chance to tweak material, tweak pieces, to go back and be like, “You know what, as I read this, that story just doesn’t work. Let’s just cut that out.” Sometimes I’m making notes. I’m going back, I’m rewriting anything that doesn’t fit, things that need work. But you want to do this out loud.

I’m not just skimming through what I’ve written because I already know it so I don’t need to reread it. No, no, no. Read it out loud to walk it through and to see how it feels. Does it feel together? Does it feel solid? Does it feel like it still needs some work?

Break It Down into Sections

The second thing that I do is I begin to break the talk into sections and then I start trying to basically internalize the message.

Now, personally I go paragraph by paragraph trying to internalize the message. Again, the goal here is not to memorize it verbatim. I’m not trying to learn this word for word. It’s not like a script. If you are singing a song in front of the audience and the audience all knows the lyrics to those songs, if you mess up, the entire audience knows.

But whenever you’re giving a talk or presentation the audience doesn’t have a script. If you mess up, if you do things out of order, that’s okay. So I’m not trying to memorize it like a very, very specific script. I’m just trying to go paragraph by paragraph, trying to internalize the message.

I want to know the material. I want to know where I’m going next. I’m going to tell this story. I know the key thoughts I’m going to tell within the story, the punchline. I know how I’m transitioning out of that story into this next point that I’m trying to make. That’s what I’m trying to do. As I internalize that material, basically what I’m trying to do then is then stack it on what I’ve already learned.

So I want to learn paragraph one. Okay, I’ve got that. Now I’m going to do paragraph two. I’m just learning that. Now I’m going to go back and do one and two together, and again, it’ll all be done out loud. I’m not trying to just do this internally, not trying to just keep this to myself, but I’m trying to really know my talk, really know that material.

Now, I’ve heard from some people who say this isn’t a good way to do it. That there’s other ways to memorize, there’s other ways to, there’s different memorization techniques and that you shouldn’t go linear from from A to Z. Find what works for you, what makes sense for you. So for me, I’m not trying to memorize it. I’m not trying to know it verbatim. I just want to be comfortable and confident with material, to know where I’m going next.

Record Yourself and Listen

Another little tactic or strategy here is to record yourself and listen back to help you to not only learn the material, but to also help decide if the material works. So you may record yourself just reading through the whole thing. At that point, you can read it verbatim because you’re recording it.

But then whenever you’re listening back, maybe you’re listening back in the car, you’re listening back on a run or working out or at dinner or just sitting in your office or on the couch or something, just listening to it back and you’re just trying to figure out, “If I was listening to this talk, if I was sitting in the audience right now, would this make sense? Does this flow together? Does this fit together?”

So not only does it serve that purpose to help you hear it aloud, but it also helps you to begin to learn the talk, to learn the material, to learn the presentation. Again, not verbatim, that’s not what we’re going for, not a word for word script, but just trying to get the feel of, “Okay, I know what happens next.”

What’s your favorite movie? A movie you’ve seen time after time after time after time. What’s going to happen if you watch that same movie over and over and over and over again? You know what comes next?

There’s going to be several key lines like, “Oh, I know that line. That line’s a good line. Yeah. I’m not going to forget that line.” But you probably don’t know the entire script, you couldn’t. Every piece of dialogue you couldn’t nail exactly. But you know the big things. And you also probably have a good idea of, “Okay, after this scene happens – this next scene is hilarious.”

Like, if you’ve ever watched a movie with a friend who knows every scene to a movie, as soon as the scene starts, they’re like, “This is funny.” I’ll think, “Okay, great. Well, don’t spoil it for me, all right? Just keep your mouth shut and sit over there in silence.”

So that’s basically how you should feel with your material. You don’t know it verbatim, you don’t know it word for word, but you’ve listened to it, you’ve gone over it time and time and time again so that you know, again, what the next story is, what the next point is, what the next illustration is, what the next prop is you’re going to use, what the next scene is in this presentation or this talk.

So that’s how you want to go through this as you’re internalizing the message.

Go Through the Whole Talk Again (and Again and Again)

So again, number one, I’m reading the entire talk aloud. Two, I’m breaking the talk down, I’m starting to internalize the message. And then three, I want to begin practicing, going through the entire talk from point A to point Z.

Now, usually if it’s a brand new presentation that I’ve never done before, I want to go through this anywhere from three to five times. And again, if you’re doing a 30, 45, 60 minute presentation, you can do the math that this is going to take several hours to go through. That’s fine. That’s the way it should be.

But go through that talk several times because up until this point, you’ve just been learning bits and pieces of it and kind of chunking it together. But now I want to try going through the entire thing.

Now when you’re doing this, a couple of other thoughts. One, I want you to time yourself, because if you’re going to speak at a certain event and they’ve given you a time limit, you need to have some sense of how long that talk takes.

Now you also need to factor in that whenever you actually speak live, there may be some things that affect your timing. So sometimes whenever you speak, maybe you speak faster in front of a live audience because you’re slightly nervous and so you go faster than if you were practicing it on your own.

The other thing to factor in is if you’re speaking to a big audience, and let’s say you’re using a lot of humor and there’s a lot of laughter, you want to factor in a few seconds there for some of your jokes because people are going to laugh. You’re going to be waiting in silence, waiting for that laughter to wrap up so that you can continue the talk.

So you want to factor that in, but you do want to time yourself and as you’re going through it you want to practice it like you would actually perform it.

I remember in high school I was really involved in my local church and in our church youth group we had this drama club. We’d do these skits from time to time. And, Nancy, who was the girl in charge, one of the things she drilled in our heads all the time is to practice like you would perform it, practice like you would perform it.

The same thing is true with the talk. You’re not just going through the motions of it. You’re practicing, thinking through your hand gestures, your voice inflections, your stage movement. If you’re going to be using a handheld microphone, practice with something to mimic that, because if you’ve never used a handheld mic and then you get up there and you’ve gotta hold something in your hand, you want to get used to that.

If you’re doing something with props that requires both hands, you want to think that through, “Okay, I’ve got this mic in my hand, but I need both hands to do this. How am I going to do this? How am I going to demonstrate this? How’s this going to work?”

So you want to practice like you would perform it, and that means if you make a mistake that you keep going. Now, the first couple times you can go, “Okay, what did I miss there? Am I missing something? Let’s go back, let’s look at our notes. Let’s try to figure that out. Let’s try to fix that.”

But there’s got to come a point where as you’re practicing it, if you mess up, you keep going. You don’t keep starting and stopping and starting. Remember, the audience doesn’t have a script. They don’t know if you mess up.

So they don’t know if you mess up unless you tell them. They don’t know that. So if you start telling the wrong story, go with it. Go with it in practice so that you feel comfortable when you get up on stage.

That’s what the live performance will be like if you make the mistake. Keep going. Now, for me personally, I like to go through this entire talk. I like to spend the bulk of my time doing this usually. Anywhere from a day or two before I actually speak, because the closer I am to when the presentation actually is, the more I want to spend time going over it just as close as possible.

Confidence, not Perfection, Is the Goal

Again, I want to feel comfortable. I want to feel confident. I want to feel like I know where the presentation is going. Remember the goal here – it’s not to memorize it, but it’s to be confident, to be comfortable with the flow of where I’m taking the audience. Confidence, not perfection, is the goal.

Now let’s talk about some other questions that come up whenever it comes to practicing and rehearsing. Should you video record yourself? Sure, you can. I typically don’t, but I think you could. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

Again, it’s only valuable if you practice it like you would perform it. If you’re just reading off of a script, then that’s not really going to do anything for you. The point of video recording is to see when I do my hand gestures, when I’m making these facial expressions, does that match, does that fit, does that work with what it is that I’m trying to communicate?

Should you practice in front of other people? Again, you can, I think it’s more of a preference thing. So I think depending on who you practice in front of, they may or may not give you good feedback or constructive feedback. Maybe you’re practicing in front of your mom and then your talk sucks.

But she’s going to like it, you know? It’s your mom, so she’s going to be like, “No, honey, that was beautiful. You’re the best speaker I’ve ever heard. Ever.”

So if you’re going to do it, make sure you’re doing it in front of people that would actually give you legitimate feedback. Make sure the context matches up.

So if you’re speaking to your spouse or your significant other, but you’re giving a presentation that they know nothing about – if you’re planning on giving a presentation to a bunch of of brain surgeons later, but you’re practicing it on your spouse and they know squat about brain surgery and you’re using a lot of technical jargon – it’s probably not going to make sense.

It’s probably going to be a little confusing there. So you can practice in front of other people. Just make sure that it matches up and that they have the correct context.

Should you practice in front of a mirror? Well, you could. Again, I think this is preference. It kind of is similar to recording yourself, so I’ll do it sometimes if I know I want to make some type of facial expression or I want to do some type of movement.

I want to practice it because oftentimes, we are never presenting it as big as we think we are. If I’m raising my eyebrows to make a point, I feel like I’m raising them really big, but I look in the mirror and I’m not. It needs to be bigger or it needs to be different or I think I’m going for this look, I think I’m looking for a funny face but really when I look at myself in the mirror doing it, I make a creepy face or something.

So that’s where it may make sense to practice something in the mirror.

Should you practice on a stage? Should you practice with a podium? Should you practice with PowerPoint?

If you’re going to be speaking on a stage and you can mimic that, great.

Should you use a podium? No, I don’t think you should use a podium. When speaking, I want you to be fully present with the audience. If you’re using props or PowerPoint or a keynote or slides of some kind, any type of technology, you’re showing videos as best as possible, then yes, you want to mimic those conditions that you’re going to be in so that you feel more comfortable and confident whenever you actually go through it. You know what happens next.

Now, this also raises the question, should you use notes? Well, the more you use notes, I think the less genuine your presentation starts. Now you can have some notes up there. If I’m speaking, I try to not use notes at all because I want to be fully present with my audience. I want it to feel very, very genuine.

And part of it is almost like this perceived thing that the audience has that if you can’t internalize the message of your talk, like why should they care? You don’t even know your talk? So why should they care? Now, this is going to depend a little bit on the context and the setting.

In a church setting or a religious setting, there’s the pastor, the preacher, the speaker’s up there, and they’re presenting a new talk every single week. I’ve been in the church environment before. I was involved in my own personal local church.

For the pastor to memorize a new talk every single week, that’s asking a lot. So they may have some notes up there that they can reference, but the point is you shouldn’t be glued to your notes. You may have maybe just a note card with a couple of key words.

If I ever do, that’s the way I’ll approach it. I don’t need my manuscript, I don’t need pages and pages. I just want a couple of key words, a couple of key phrases.

So I’ll give you an example. I do a story in some of my talks about my first car, and it’s about a six or seven minute story. It’s a funny story, and I don’t need the whole manuscript of what I’m supposed to say, in that I may just have the word “car” written down on a note card and that’s it.

Just “car.” And that triggers in my mind, “Okay, tell the car story. That’s what comes next.” You may have a note card like that, but again, the more you use notes, the less genuine your presentation feels. The less you use notes, the more genuine your presentation feels. So if at all possible, I recommend that you try to avoid notes, that you try to use those as little as possible.

So how you practice and rehearse your talk, and you have to practice and rehearse it . . . This is my method, whatever your method is, that’s fine. The point is that you don’t get up and just wing it. You spend the time going through it. You spend the time rehearsing.

You spend the time practicing. You don’t spend ten minutes on it. You’re going to spend hours. Hours. That’s a commitment. That’s a big commitment.

Now, each time you speak, if you’re doing a lot of the same stories or material, you’re going to get better. The talk is going to get easier, and so it may not require as much practice and rehearsal and preparation, but you should still always view it as a performance that you need to prepare for. I’m not showing up and just going through the motions or just winging it.

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