Any speaking coach worth his or her salt will tell you that the one thing speakers don’t do enough of is practice. It’s not at all unusual for me to suggest a two- to-three month horizon to prep for a major talk, only to have the speaker exclaim, “But I’ve never spent more than two days getting ready!”
If I had a nickel for every time a client said that, I could quit coaching and live quite comfortably.
But when you’re getting ready to give a speech, you might want to know some of the many reasons coaches urge practice before you dismiss it out of hand.
First and foremost, practice gives you room to make mistakes and correct them without an audience present. I like to say, “If you’re going to screw up, wouldn’t you rather do that privately with me than in front of the audience?”
More than that, practice lets you take something from good to great, from tentative to polished. You can find out where you stumble and stutter and come up with workarounds. You can learn whether that move you want to make across the stage works in real life. You will find out which parts of your script or slides just don’t stick in your memory bank and adjust them.
You can try out a gesture, handle a prop, experiment with volume, vocalizing, and every other aspect of delivery—not just once, but several times, so you can choose from the most successful options for you.
Plus, you’ll go into the talk knowing why you chose not to do certain things, which is its own form of comfort. You’ll get used to the sound of your own voice and how it feels to give the talk out loud, as opposed to just silently narrating your slides as you review them; that kinetic memory will build as you practice, giving you that much more confidence.
Practice also affords you the time and space to learn your talk inside out so you are less flummoxed by a last-minute interruption or snafu. It means that when you panic at the sight of the lights and the crowd, what you wanted to say will come out of your mouth anyway and get you started.
Practice gives you the chance to decide that you don’t need every single slide—before the audience’s eyes start to glaze over. You’ll have the chance to practice without the slides and without feeling the need to speed up.
Finally, practice is great insurance against the bane of public speakers: That moment when you step off the stage and realize you forgot to make your most important point.
When considering your practice time, remember the great irony of public speaking: It’s the speakers who look most natural, conversational, genuine and spontaneously smooth who practice the most. Everyone else just looks unprepared. Audiences appreciate the difference.
For me, the proof lies in what I hear when coaching clients call me to report, “I did all the preparation you told me to do, and it worked!” Yes, indeed.
How can you reform your speaking practice?
Denise Graveline is a Washington, D.C.-based speaker coach who has coached more than 140 speakers for TEDMED or TEDx talks. A version of this article first appeared on her blog, The Eloquent Woman.