Failure to prepare is one of the biggest mistakes presenters make. But most people have a hard time getting their arms around the process.
In my workshops I share the technique that works for me. Participants have found it to be one of their most valued takeaways, so here is my totally not-patented five-step process for how to rehearse a presentation.
First, though, let me cover a couple of key questions.
Why is Rehearsal Important?
I wish it could go without saying that rehearsal is important, but time and again I’ve seen executives sabotage themselves by not taking the process seriously. They procrastinate, change their minds, and futz with their content all the way up to the last minute, leaving themselves no time to actually practice their delivery.
And it usually shows. People who think they’re better when they “wing it” are kidding themselves. Even professional improvisers — who perform shows where they make up the content on the spot — rehearse!
So in case there’s any question about it, here are three reasons why rehearsal is absolutely vital:
- The better you know your material, the more poised and confident you will appear (and be).
- Practicing helps you refine your ideas and improve your content so you make the biggest impact possible.
- Rehearsing is the only way to know if you have too much content — and one of the most common and aggravating mistakes I see presenters make is when they go over their allotted time or blow through the last part of their presentation at warp speed.
How Long Should You Rehearse?
When people ask how much time they should spend rehearsing their presentations, they usually don’t like my answer: “As much as humanly possible.”
(Which at least sounds more manageable than one expert’s answer: 30 hours!)
The question I suspect they’re really asking is, “What’s the minimum amount of prep time I can get away with?” They seem to be looking for some secret shortcut or hack.
The truth is, there is no magic bullet. Rehearsing a speech involves time and effort. And though my process is simple, it’s not necessarily easy. It takes work.
How Should You Rehearse?
First, let me tell you how NOT to rehearse a presentation. Rehearsing does not mean sitting in front of your computer, tabbing through your slides and running through the presentation in your head.
Instead you need to get on your feet and deliver it in full voice, just as you would in an actual presentation situation. You might find this embarrassing, so shut your office door and put out a “Do Not Disturb” sign.
Set up your computer so the screen is visible as you move about the room (which you would do in an actual presentation) and follow these five steps. Think of the steps as “sets” at the gym — you can perform as many “reps” per set as you have time for.
1. Current Slide + Timer + Next Slide + Notes
Set up your presentation deck in “rehearsal” mode. In PowerPoint, go to Slideshow>Presenter View. In Keynote (for Mac) go to Play>Rehearse Slideshow.
You can customize the display to show a variety of elements on the screen. Start with Current Slide, Next Slide, Notes and Timer. Like so:
As you start practicing you will likely have to stop and start and consult your notes. That’s fine. Run through it that way until you’re fairly comfortable.
2. Current Slide + Timer + Next Slide
Next, put your presentation notes on “hide” and start running through it again. Stop as needed to check your notes, but try to get to a point where you no longer need them.
3. Current Slide + Timer
Now this is where it gets tricky. Up to now you’ve had the luxury of seeing your next slide so you know what’s coming next. The reason that’s important is that it helps you transition from one slide to another in a way that’s smooth and fluid, eliminating unnecessary pauses as you advance through the presentation.
So in this step you’re going to hide the “Next Slide” display and start running it again. You will definitely end up pausing and stumbling and even backtracking when you’ve guessed wrong about what comes next. But keep working the material until you’re comfortable.
In each of these three steps you should use the timer to keep you on track. Your early stumble-throughs will probably run longer than your allotted time, but as you go along you’ll want to make sure you come in at or under that mark. And if you can’t, you’ll need to make some cuts.
4. No Slides at All
Here it gets really hard. Close your laptop or exit the presentation and run through it without the benefit of your visuals.
This step is the equivalent of actors rehearsing a play “off book” for the first time. They put down their scripts and perform their role from memory.
But they are aided by being in the familiar environment of the theater — they’re on stage, in costume, interacting with their fellow players. So there’s an abundance of sensory cues to guide them.
In the same way, you’re in your own imaginary but focused environment, shut away in your office, free of outside distraction, conjuring a stage and audience in your mind.
If you can successfully get through your presentation in this mode, congratulations. You’re doing very well. But if you want to take it up a notch, advance to the next step.
5. Leave the Office
Actors know they’ve got their part down when they can leave the rehearsal space and recite their lines (out loud or in their head) while they’re doing other things — commuting on the train, showering, grocery shopping, working out, etc.
It’s harder than it sounds — it’s like patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time. So get out into the world, do other things, and keep running your presentation.
If you can manage that, you’re in great shape. BUT, there is one big and important difference between actors and presenters …
Don’t Memorize; Internalize
Actors learn their lines verbatim. But if you try to memorize your presentation word-for-word, you’ll have a hard time delivering it in a way that sounds natural and real. So instead, you want to internalize the material.
What that means is, you know it well enough that you’re conversant and fluent. You will phrase things differently in every iteration, but the core ideas you express are consistent over time. You have room to improvise around the margins.
Overwhelmed? Don’t Be
By now you’re probably thinking, “This is a helluva lot of work!” That’s true, it is.
But the answer to the question of how much effort you should put into practicing your presentation is simply this: “How important is the presentation?”
Is it a talk that can make or break your year or career? Like an opportunity to impress your organization’s leaders or to establish your reputation among industry peers or to allay people’s concerns about big changes coming their way?
Then I would recommend going all out. Maybe even hitting that 30-hour benchmark.
For lesser occasions, you can do fewer “reps” in each of the sets above.
At minimum, though, you should practice your open and close as much as you possibly can. The first and last impressions you make on your audience are the most important, so you want to come on and and go out strong.
The Effort You Devote to Rehearsal is Up to You
The amount of effort you put into rehearsing your presentation is obviously your choice. What do your ideas deserve? What does your audience deserve? What do your career and reputation deserve?
Those, ultimately, are the questions you need to answer.