As a speaker coach and trainer, I can tell you that the one thing I always recommend is the same thing my trainees rarely do: Practice, and lots of it.
I don’t just recommend practice for your speech or presentation because it sounds good. I know there are seven secret advantages—some of the best advantages in public speaking—reserved for speakers who practice.
By practice, I don’t mean flipping through your slides an hour before the presentation. I mean run-throughs, full of stops and starts, until you’re able to deliver that talk as you envision it. Helpful observer friends and cameras optional, although they both can help the practice process. Whether you do it solo or with a team, practice will help you:
1. Look like you didn’t need practice: Call it the Great Irony of Public Speaking: The speaker who practices winds up looking relaxed, unruffled, at ease, and extemporaneous. The speaker who gets up to speak without preparation looks like, well, she isn’t prepared. The unprepared speaker is more likely to run overtime, stumble, forget, and look forced. You can only get that extemporaneous, casual look through practice—and it’s the biggest advantage of having practiced.
2. Remember more of what you wanted to say: No question about it, repetition through practice means your brain will retain more of what you wanted to say. Every speaker has those moments when her mind goes blank. Practice means that the words have a better chance of coming out of your mouth anyway.
3. Roll with the punches: If your slides don’t work, you can still speak. If the room changes, the microphone doesn’t work, or you wind up with lots of other last-minute public speaking snafus, you can still speak. Knowing you have practiced your speech—including what might go wrong—keeps you cool under difficult and changing circumstances.
4. Work out your stumbles ahead of time: Keep tripping over that troublesome word or phrase? Hesitating to say that strong, pointed statement? You’ll get better at it with practice. And who doesn’t prefer to make the mistakes in private, rather than in front of a crowd? If you’re working with a speechwriter, let her sit in on your practice so lines can be rewritten on the spot to make them easier to say.
5. Try a new speaking skill with lower risk: If you’re trying something new to you, from storytelling to speaking simply about technical topics, practice makes that first foray less risky-because it won’t actually be your first foray after you’ve practiced many times.
6. Build a stronger structure for your speech or presentation: Want a strong, fast start to grab and hold your audience’s attention? A big ending? A section of your keynote that gets the audience engaged and active? Practice can make sure you have the time to plan, try out, and perfect those key sections of the presentation.
7. Hit those grace notes: Whether you want to polish the delivery of that special quote to use your vocalizing well, maneuver the stage smoothly, or get creative with your special thanks and acknowledgements, grace notes are practice-worthy. The things that can take your speech from good to great are best nurtured with time to practice.
Don’t think you have time to practice? Check out my five stealth ways to find the time for public-speaking practice. You can do this.