Some speakers feel they’re best when speaking off the cuff.
They believe rehearsing robs them of their spontaneity and that their instincts will guide them once they get in front of an audience.
That’s almost always a mistake. Practice sessions inevitably reveal soft spots—listless anecdotes, awkward transitions, distracting visuals and myriad other problems. Without practice, those trouble spots often can’t be spotted in advance, and the off-the-cuff speaker ends up committing avoidable errors.
Still, off-the-cuff presenters have a point about striking a balance between practice—which helps them get comfortable and work out any kinks in the presentation—and over-practice, which can make them come across as stilted.
Grammy Award-winning cellist Yo-Yo Ma once offered a simple formula for finding a middle ground: “Practicing is about quality, not quantity.”
These tips will help you optimize your rehearsal process:
1. Start with chunks, not full run-throughs.
Beginning with a full run-through makes it challenging to focus on any single section. It can, after a few takes, make your practice feel redundant and unnecessarily long.
Instead, divide your presentation into chunks, or sections, as in the following example:
- Chunk One: Open and transition to point one
- Chunk Two: Point one and transition to point two
- Chunk Three: Point two and transition to point three
- Chunk Four: Point three and transition to close
- Chunk Five: Close and transition to Q&A
Practice one chunk at a time, speaking it out loud. If anything is dragging, consider cutting it or supplementing it with more compelling detail. When you feel comfortable with each chunk’s organizational flow and your delivery, move on to the next one.
Notice that each chunk includes a transition to the next section. Many speakers are strong when discussing the main point but stumble during transitions—so practice both together.
Run a stopwatch on each chunk, which will give you a rough running time. If you’re running long, you can make cuts before doing a full run-through. If you’re light, you can add supporting material as needed.
Once you’re satisfied with each chunk and you’ve worked out the timing, you’re ready for a full run-through (or several). If you make mistakes during your run-through, remain in character; knowing how to work your way through them is an important skill. (Of course, you should make a mental note of your mistakes so you can fix them afterward.)
Finally, time the full run-through, keeping in mind that presentations often run a bit longer in front of a real audience than during a practice talk.
When you reach that magical moment of completing a strong practice run—assuming you have at least a few days before your presentation date—put your talk away. Distance often helps.
2. Recreate the real speaking environment.
Replicate your speech environment. Display your slides, use your slide remote, print your notes or script, cue up any audio-visual elements, and prepare any props.
Try to practice in the room where you’ll deliver the presentation. Beyond giving you greater comfort in that space, physical familiarity can enhance your memory, research shows.
Another option is to download a public speaking virtual reality app that immerses you inside a conference room or auditorium complete with realistic audience members who shift in their seats and cough.
3. Record and analyze your performance.
If you’re like most people, you find it unpleasant—even painful—to watch or listen to yourself on a recording. It can be uncomfortable. However, I’d strongly encourage you to do it anyway, with one crucial reminder: Be kind to yourself.
Many of the things people dislike about hearing or watching themselves do not prevent them from delivering effective presentations. Instead of being hypercritical about the things you can’t control (physical appearance, age, weight, receding hairline), focus on the parts you can—which, in this case, means making sure you and your material are coming across in the most authentic, compelling manner possible.
Record your rehearsal. Listening to the audio allows you to focus on the story you’re trying to tell, and watching the video helps you focus on your physical delivery. I generally advise against practicing into mirrors; video offers a more realistic approximation of how the audience will see you than a mirror ever could.
4. Solicit others’ feedback.
You can practice in front of peers and colleagues, use webcams to practice with people in remote locations or send recorded files to trusted friends to review at their convenience. Technology has made it easier than ever to receive instant feedback.
When soliciting others’ opinions, listen carefully to their constructive feedback and incorporate the changes that make sense to you. Don’t, however, let their opinions undermine your careful preparation and compel you to implement every recommended change.
To help make the feedback you receive as useful as possible, ask specific questions such as:
- What do you think my main point was?
- Did I say anything that really stood out to you?
- Did anything feel too long or too dull?
Brad Phillips is president of Phillips Media Relations. He is author of the Mr. Media Training Blog, (where a version of this article originally appeared) and two books: “The Media Training Bible” and “101 Ways to Open a Speech.”