8 effective ways to practice a speech

Mentally running through your slides doesn’t count as practice. Here’s what does.

“I have read my slides, therefore I have practiced.” René Descartes

Descartes didn’t actually say that, but you say it all the time.

“I absolutely practiced,” you’ll tell me. But I’ll be skeptical.

As a speaker coach and presentation trainer, I’ve heard every dodge in the book about whether you practiced your talk, speech or presentation.

There are advantages for speakers who practice, but most speakers just flip through their slides or notes, read silently to themselves, decide to rely on the text or slides, and don’t bother practicing out loud. Or people will “practice” while sitting at their desks, even when they’re going to be standing up and moving around during the presentation.

It’s almost worse if you’ve given the presentation before. “I’ve got this,” you say. “I’ll just go out there and kill it.” There’s a special hell waiting for experienced speakers who get on stage and find out that a little practice would have smoothed the rough edges of their talks.

Part of the problem is that many people don’t know how to practice a speech, or are afraid of what they’ll find if they do. But as I say in my training workshops, wouldn’t you rather mess up in practice than in front of your audience?

Here are eight effective ways to practice your presentation:

1. Stand up and move around.

You’ll look, sound and feel more energized if you stand while you practice. That’s why I encourage speakers to stand, even if they’re speaking as part of a panel, or on the phone for a conference call or media interview.

Sitting drains energy, crowds your diaphragm and makes your voice less lively. Plus, practicing the physical movements for your talk helps you develop a kinetic memory of the movements you’ll make, which will help you pull off a smooth presentation.

2. Speak out loud.

There’s no other way to find out whether you stumble over a particular phrase or can’t pronounce something easily, in which case you can do a rewrite or workaround. You’ll also get a sense for how speaking makes you feel—whether you tense up, speak too fast or soft, or have some other issue.

3. Practice without the text.

If your goal is to speak without a text, start weaning yourself from your notes during practice sessions. Come up with an outline made up of just keywords, and choose keywords that are vivid and specific. (Say “hammer story” instead of “lessons learned.”)

Put those keywords in a short list on a whiteboard or flipchart on the other side of the room where you can glance at them as cues. Then practice out loud without the cue cards.

4. Practice in the actual setting.

Many of us practice in conference rooms, offices and hotel rooms. But if those aren’t like the space in which you’ll be speaking, find something closer to the actual setting for at least one practice.

Will you be using a lectern? Find a lectern to practice with. Will you be in an auditorium? Practice in one.

Even if you can’t practice there, make sure you scope out the actual space ahead of time—find photos on the Web or visit in person an hour before—so you know what to expect.

5. Record yourself on video.

Grab a friend or colleague and ask her to record your practice. You can use your phone’s camera or an ultralight camcorder like the Sony Bloggie. Upload and review the video, and use my checklist of things to look for, from gestures and vocal errors to movement and tone. Note two or three things you want to improve, and practice again on video to see your progress.

6. Listen to an audio recording.

If you want to memorize a text, it’s helpful to record yourself reading the text in a lively way. Mark up the text to give yourself cues about pronunciation, emphasis, pauses and up- or downturns in your tone.

Load the audio into your phone, iPod or a CD, and listen to it over and over. One of my clients does this while running on a treadmill. Another client listens in the car on her commute, and yet another listens while she walks on the beach. It’s a great way to practice that will let you focus on the sound of your voice and vocal variety, and help familiarize you with the words you want to say.

7. Grab a test audience.

I’ve coached several speakers this year for TEDMED, TEDx and TED-like talks, and many of them have practiced in front of test audiences made up of work colleagues or family members.

Some speakers chose listeners who could offer perspectives on the topic, or who resembled the actual audience so the speakers could gauge responses.

Many speakers, knowing their colleagues wouldn’t be able to see the talk in person, did a friends and family preview of the talk-the closest thing to a live run-through-just before departing for the actual talk. It’s a great way to give your colleagues an insider preview while getting some practice.

8. Work with a coach.

When I do one-on-one coaching with a speaker, much of what we do involves practice, as well as recording and feedback.

I usually do at least one in-person coaching session so I can better see movement, expression and other delivery issues. Then we follow up on Skype, phone or email, and send practice videos back and forth for review and critique. The speaker also works in between our sessions, and focuses on a list of action items we put together ahead of time.

The goal is to structure the practices so the list of issues gets smaller and smaller as we get closer to the day of the speech. This lets us focus on nuances and grace notes to really make the talk sing. For many speakers, working with a coach is a great way to stay focused in practice while getting constructive and private feedback.

Denise Graveline is the president of don’t get caught, a communications consultancy. She also writes The Eloquent Woman, where a version of this article originally appeared.

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