As a professionally trained pianist, practice has been part of my life since I was 6 years old. Time-consuming and often tedious, it’s the focused, detailed work which makes going out on stage possible – a Classical musician wouldn’t even contemplate walking out in front of a group without practising beforehand. Yet speakers frequently neglect this vital part of building confidence and professionalism, and a big part of the reason why seems to be lack of knowledge about what works around practice and what doesn’t.
So here’s my FAQ list for you:
What should be my practice goals? To speak out loud, conversationally, and from an outline rather than scripted.
Why is practice so useful? Because you’ll realise that sentences which look fine written down don’t work out loud: they’re too long, or awkward to speak. Or you might constantly trip over a phrase and need to change it. You’ll build your confidence because you’ve already given the speech: you’ve shrunk what might initially have looked like a mountain of pain into something manageable and doable. It’s suddenly become a lot more possible.
Can’t I just read the talk through in my head? No. Getting used to the sound of your own voice actually delivering the ideas is a big part of building your confidence. Reading the speech through in your mind instead is not the same: it’s easier to do – we’re all fluent and articulate in our own heads! – but don’t fall into this trap. Speaking the words aloud, and standing up if that’s how you’re going to present the actual speech, is vital to make real improvements.
But I have to read from a script, it’s company policy – do I still need to practise? Yes, definitely. The more you can hear the words coming out of your mouth, the better off you’ll be: especially because reading from a page usually creates a monotonous tone, you need to practise pausing and using real vocal fluctuation and variety to keep your audience’s interest.
What’s the minimum I should practice one speech? 3 times is good, 5 times even better.
How many times is too much? You’ll know you’ve overdone it when you’re totally bored and jaded by your content, or when you feel like you just couldn’t do it one more time!
When I’m practising, what should I do when I make a mistake or fumble? Don’t go back to the beginning! You wouldn’t do this in the real presentation, so don’t do it when you practice. A major part of becoming confident as a speaker is learning to recover from mistakes. Musicians do this all the time in live performances, it’s a big part of becoming a professional. You just move on. This will really build your confidence, as you’ll then know you can get over any glitch or hurdle in real time.
Which sections should I practise? The presentation is too long to run the whole thing. First you need to ask yourself, is it really too long to run, or is that an excuse? When I planned and wrote my first public 3 hour workshop, I stood up and presented it a couple of weeks beforehand for my partner, exercises and all – it took nearly all day, because he was picky! (And I was hugely grateful to him for his willingness to help.) I then invited 6 friends and acquaintances to the conference room where I was going to going to run the paid event, and ran it free for them. They got muffins and great information in exchange for brutally honest feedback. It wasn’t comfortable for me, but boy, was it effective.
But if you genuinely don’t have the time to run the whole presentation, then the most crucial part to practise is the opening, when you’re probably most nervous and the audience is evaluating you most critically. Then the key points and how you plan to highlight them (you do plan to highlight them, don’t you?), and the ending with your ‘call to action’ or similar strong close. Transitions between sections are another key place to work out. Most people don’t consider them important, but a smooth segue between points or sections can really enhance your presentation: and clunky, jarring transitions, detract from it.
Should I practise in front of the mirror? No…absolutely not. The only possible reason to do this would be to check your gestures and posture. You’re not going to present to yourself, so don’t practise that way. It’s off-putting.
Do I have to practise in front of a live person? It’s the ideal option, to get feedback from someone – so long as they’re going to be constructive of course. But if you can’t, then standing up and speaking aloud to yourself or to the dog or cat is a lot better than not doing it at all.
So there you go. A few ideas on the best ways to practice to improve your presentations: good luck!