How to go from good presenter to great presenter

There is one thing that will take you from being a good presenter to becoming a great presenter.

I’ve recently returned from 5 weeks travelling overseas. The first week back in New Zealand we ran a one-day presentation skills course. This is routine stuff for me. I’ve delivered the same material two to three times a week for five years.

I didn’t even think about rehearsing.

I wasn’t terrible. But sometimes my sentences didn’t quite go where I wanted them to. I didn’t click to go to the next PowerPoint slide at just the right moment. My timing was just a little off to get the biggest laugh.

I was good, but I wasn’t great.

For me the difference between being good and being great is rehearsal.

And a new study of competitive chess players reveals that this might be the case for many people. The more hours of practice a chess player puts in, the better they are. And that’s not because they’re more talented. The study compared two groups of competitive chess players – the first group were good, the second group were great. The research showed that the difference in ability was due to more practice hours. The researchers concluded:

Irrespective of skill level, stimulating deliberate practice will likely improve performance.

Why we don’t rehearse

You know in your gut that that ‘sall true. But you still don’t rehearse because:

1.  “It’s time consuming”

Get over it. Multiply the number of people who will be listening to you by the length of your presentation. A one-hour presentation to 30 people. That’s 30 hours of people time. Isn’t it worth doing a couple of rehearsals so that that 30 hours is worthwhile.

2.   “It makes me feel uncomfortable”

Rehearsing brings up fear – the fear you feel when you’re in front of the audience. So it’s tempting to sidestep the rehearsal. But instead of focusing on the fear, focus on the reduction in fear you’ll have as a result of your rehearsal. The knowledge that you’ve practised your presentation a couple of times and it hangs together well, will help.

3.   “I’ll get stale”

Rowan Manahan has a rant about the stale excuse on his blog:

Try using that ’stale’ line with a stage actor who endures weeks and weeks of rehearsal and then months or even years of 8-shows-a-week performances. Stale? In front of a full house who have paid 70-100 bucks a seat? I don’t think so! The enormous effort put in at rehearsal and the ongoing cycle of refresher rehearsals keeps the show alive and invigorated and fresh – not stale. What these performers display at every show, at every cast meeting and at every refresher is called professional pride and I sincerely wish that more presenters displayed it too.

4. “I can get away with winging it”

You’re deluding yourself. Here’s Nick Morgan to skewer your delusion:

The alternative, winging it, is never as good as you think it is.  And your audience won’t tell you the truth. Unfortunately, what happens is that the speaker who wings it gets pumped full of adrenaline, comes charging off the stage and asks the first person he sees, ‘how was it,’ with a big smile on his face.  Only a churl would reply with, ‘well, it was disorganized, there were lots of minor screw-ups, and you kept making the same points over and over again’.  Most people say, ‘it was great!’ and the speaker think to himself, ‘That’s all right then; next time I’ll do it the same way.  Obviously I’m too cool to rehearse’.

5. “I’m better when I’m unprepared”

Jason Fried from 37Signals recently posted on the company blog:

This year I’ve spoken at about a dozen or so conferences and another dozen or so meetings or classes or gatherings. What I’ve started to notice is that I’m better unprepared.

Then he compared two talks he’d recently given:

I’d never given the Software Curator talk before, so I practiced and practiced and practiced the night before. I was manic about it. I ran through it a few dozen times. When it came time to give the “Software Curator” talk, I was nervous. Not because I was speaking in front of a couple thousand people, but because I kept thinking about what I was supposed to say based on hours of practice. I kept reliving the practice, not living the moment. I keep reaching for the script in my mind instead of my current thoughts. I wasn’t happy with the talk at all.

Last week I spoke at the IDEA conference in Chicago. I had no idea what I was going to talk about. The topic was just “Getting Real” so it was pretty open ended. I went up on stage, grabbed the mic, and just started talking. No idea what the next sentence would be. I wandered through a bunch of ideas that came to mind in the moment. I think it was one of my better talks.

First, I wonder whether the audience would agree with Jason. Your own feelings about how a talk goes are not necessarily a good reflection of how the audience felt. But more important, the way that Jason rehearsed may not have served him well. The way he rehearsed resulted in him writing a script in his head. Just like a script on paper, having a script in your head has you “read” to your audience. That doesn’t help you connect and engage with your audience. Even more problematic, because the script was in his head rather than on paper, he also had to reach for the words. That had him concentrating on his content rather than the audience.

One of the goals of rehearsal is to have the content of your presentation so familiar to you that you don’t have to think about it. That means that during the presentation, your sole focus is on connecting with your audience. Chris Bonney has a useful analogy in his post The truth about winging it:

Think of it like basketball. You practice dribbling, free throws, and your jump shot until you can do them in your sleep. That way on game day when you’re in the flow of the game and are forced to read the other guy on the run, you’re able to adjust and still hit your jumper with no problem.

How can you rehearse to achieve this goal? A presentation is about communicating ideas not words. There are hundreds of different ways of saying the same thing. So the exact form of your sentences is not critical. Every time you rehearse make a point of saying it differently. That will reduce the risk of writing a script in your head.

If you want to be a great presenter, there’s no excuse for not rehearsing.

Other great posts on rehearsal:

TJ Walker argues that the only way to rehearse is by video. He argues that not watching yourself deliver your presentation is like sending out a critical written report or proposal without editing and proofreading.

Laura Bergells has Top 6 Touchy-Feely Presentation Rehearsal Tips. She stresses the value of rehearsing in front of people to replicate the emotional energy of the audience. If you don’t have people she recommends “hang pictures of friends, family, or colleagues.”

Joey Asher responds to people who say they don’t have time to rehearse for a new business pitch “If you don’t have time to rehearse, I guess I understand. But know this. One of your competitors probably wants to win enough to practice really hard. And with that in mind, they’re probably going to win.”

Lisa Braithwaite of SpeakSchmeak has a great post on the difference between preparing and overpreparing. here;s one of her indicators of overpreparing: “You’ve rehearsed a gesture, facial expression and movement for each moment of the presentation so there is no risk of spontaneity breaking out.”

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16 Comments

  1. Don’t forget, rehearsal should also give you a chance to rehearse the equipment you’ll be using. You can make sure your laptop actually works with the projector. You can become familiar with the remote control and make sure you don’t tend to actually bring up the previous slide instead of the next one. Just showing up two minutes before you’re supposed to get behind the lectern is almost always a disaster waiting to happen.

    If you don’t mind, I’d like to mention a blog I started a few months ago that deals specifically with the stuff that can go wrong during any part of the presentation process — from outlining the slides to packing up once the show is over. It’s called Breaking Murphy’s Law (http://www.breakingmurphyslaw.com). I’ve been trying to focus on using stories from people who are actually out there in the presentation trenches dealing with all of those things that can and will go wrong. Hope you find it useful and please feel free to let me know if you would like to contribute a good presentation disaster story.

    Thanks,
    Lee

  2. Thanks Lee for your pointers. I’ve been reading your blog since it started (I think we started blogging at about the same time). Lee’s blog http://www.breakingmurphyslaw.com/ is a great place to got to – to read about other people’s presentation disasters before they happen to you.

  3. Olivia-
    Thanks so much for the mention. And what a fantastically thorough post! Well done. I’m an instant fan. Subscribed and looking forward to more. Great blog.

  4. Thanks for the comments Chris, very much appreciate it. Olivia.

  5. Hi Olivia,

    These are some great points.

    I agree with you that the way you rehearse is crucial. I once heard someone say “practice doesn’t make perfect, it just makes permanent.”

    I think it is important to say the same words the same way once you’ve developed a flow.

    When I performed in plays, I read through the same script the same way more than I care to remember. When I did that, the words were seared in my mind … just like the words to a song would be. That made it possible for me to be in the moment on stage while delivering the lines without ever having to think about what the lines were. The same is true of a speech. Saying the same words the same way helps to develop a comfort level.

    Many people will argue that they don’t have enough time to read the speech over and over like an actor would. Fortunately, they don’t have to.

    Simply recording the speech and listening to it while driving, taking the train or doing some sort of activity is another way to lock the words into the memory so they’re effortless to remember. It’s exactly what happens with songs on the radio. We hear them so often, we don’t need to try to remember them … we just do.

    I’ve also written a post on practice at:

    http://www.wellwrittenwellsaid.com/successfulspeechesblog/?p=43

    Keep up the great posts

    John Watkis
    Speechwriter

  6. Hi John

    I agree with your quote – “Practice makes permanent”.

    But I don’t think that your advice to say the same words the same way works well for most people. It works for you – but I would speculate that that’s because you’re also an actor. As an actor your job is to recite learnt lines as if they were part of a natural conversation. People who haven’t done any acting can’t necessarily do that. If they memorise their speech so that they can give it exactly the same way every time – they’re likely to come across as stiff and artificial.

    Thanks for the link to your rehearsal post – good advice on using video.
    Olivia

  7. Thanks, as always, for a well-researched post with lots of great links. This is one of my pet issues, as you probably have discovered from reading my multitude of posts about preparation!

  8. I liked the comments posted on this blog about importance of practice and rehearsal to make your presentations or public speaking successful.
    I always feel that I am not able to project my voice and articulate the words properly. Is there any material / information on how I can improve these areas?

  9. Hi Gopal, thanks for your comments. You’ve asked for advice on projecting your voice and articulating your words properly. I’ll write my next blog post on that issue. Olivia.

  10. Thanks for the mention!

    Seems that quite a few of us are watching a decline in the devotion to presentation rehearsal. It’s hard to imagine something so fundamental to good performance going to the wayside!

    Let’s bring rehearsal back!

  11. i love your write up. i need your help, i am new in the industry, presently i work with one of the radio stations in my country. i want to be as great as you. please can you teach me more on how to be a great radio presenter. thank you.

    • Radio presenting is not what I do! Hope you can find some help elsewhere.

      Olivia

  12. This was a good read. Had a similar article : [link removed]

    • Hi Syed
      Thank you for your comment. However, I have removed your link. That’s because it’s not good blog etiquette to add a link that doesn’t add value to the post. In this case, although your article is about presenting it’s not about the specific subject of this post which is rehearsal. If you’d like to get traffic from commenting on my blog, the better way to do it is to write something which adds value to what I’ve written so that people will want to click on your username to see what other great stuff you’ve written.
      All the best
      Olivia

  13. hello Olivia,thank you a lot for this.i have just completed high school and am now a radio presenter at TOP RADIO jinja and i love my job.want to be the greatest.lol

  14. The reasons you’ve listed for not rehearsing are spot-on! Especially No. 4 – I can get away with winging it! Great article, really enjoyed reading it :-)

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