Five guidelines for practicing your next presentation

So, exactly how much should you practice? You will probably get as many answers to this as you ask people. So here is my opinion:

Seth Godin claims “Rehearsing is for cowards“. He argues (roughly) that the goal of rehearsal is to get rid of the hitches, which in turn undermines “going forward”. Now, being somewhat of a fan of Seth Godin I am pretty sure that he does not claim that we go in completely unprepared. No, in fact, he eludes to this by saying: “I’m not dismissing study, learning, experimenting or getting great at what you do. In fact, I’m arguing in favor of this sort of hard work.” The implication is that we know our work; however, that we do not rehearse every single word, that we rather leave opportunity for spontaneity and going with the flow.
I am all for rehearsing, particularly to get the timing right, to figure out what one tends to forget and to confirm that the slides really work with what I’m going to say. However, I am also for being prepared in such a way that you can handle reactions from the audience, that you can be interrupted and that you can better meet the needs of the audience on the fly. Of course this does need you to “know your stuff”, i.e. be very knowledgeable in the area you are talking about.

Here is some guidance I dish out when asked about preparation

  1. Know exactly how you are going to start, i.e. how you plan on getting the audience attention.  For most speakers (I think) the start is the worse. It is the place you get over any stage fright you may have, it’s the time where you cool your nerves. You should not need to think too much of what you need to say at that point of the speech…
  2. Know your slide deck’s contents very well. Be able to say one sentence on each, know the reason you have the slide there. If you then need to move along to emphasize something different from planned (let’s say due to a remark or question) you don’t have to say “I’ll just skip this slide…”, you just make one statement and move along. This of course also supports the notion of no bullets on a slide; if the bullets are there, you are expected to shoot them! If they’re not, nobody is any wiser if you don’t.
  3. Know how to get from slide to slide. What’s the punchline was the gist of point 2; here you make sure you know how to move along, what kind of flow sentence can you use to get away from the slide.These two steps can allow you to do magic with a slide deck; you can rush through slides without appearing rushed, or you can go slow and talk about detail, depending on the situation.
  4. Know how you can end, and how long it takes to do the ending. If the situation is very flexible, maybe figure out alternative (with the same slides). Be sure that you know exactly how to summarize your talk and point out what you see as the value, the contribution you made to the discussion. Do not have to end up with “OK folks, that’s it, we are somehow out of time…”
  5. Have some extra slides available, especially if it’s a flexible kind of environment where you might get interrupted a lot.  Also make sure you have them documented (small printouts with prominent slide numbers will do) so that you can jump to the slide without traversing the deck. This point may not always be applicable, depending on the situation, but you should at least think whether its applicable or not. Of course it also helps to pre-empt some questions that might arise, even at the end.

So I guess my position is:

  • yes, practice; just enough, but not too much;
  • reflect on your practice runs and learn from them;
  • you need to know your work, otherwise no amount of practice are going to help.

In “Sometimes it’s better not to be prepared”  Lisa Braithwaite sketches a real scenario where at first it may seem as if the speaker were not prepared. But she mentions “.. has been preparing to talk about this for some time. She’s got all the data memorized. She can tell her own story by heart. She was prepared, deep inside her brain.” Again this highlights the importance of “knowing your stuff” as opposed to “knowing your talk”.

How do you practice for your talks? Do you have some helpful tips? Please share them in the comments.


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