The short answer is you should practice your presentation as much as you possibly can. Know your content backward, forward and sideways. There is no such thing as over-rehearsal.
Here’s why and how.
A Lesson From a Wedding
My wife and I gave ourselves just four months to plan our wedding, from proposal to vows. That kind of timeframe inevitably leads to tense moments.
One of those occasions came just weeks before the big day when Karen and I were driving out to meet with the minister. I wanted to try out a new intro I’d been working on for a major speech I had coming up.
Karen, more occupied with the details of the major wedding we had coming up, asked, “When is the speech?” I told her it was in March.
This was November. Kind of ironic that I might spend more time preparing for a speech than for the wedding.
Always Be Rehearsing
This is how I usually work. I’ll spend months rehearsing a big presentation. At the end of this month, I have the first of what will be six speeches in three weeks. I started working on that first one in January.
Even though it’s just a longer version of a presentation I’ve given multiple times, it requires customization for the audience. And I wanted to create a special intro.
So I practice it, over and over, in my head. In the shower, at the gym, at the grocery store. I’m constantly adjusting, refining and testing.
Internalize, Don’t Memorize
This was an important lesson I learned from doing theater. Preparing for a play is about more than memorizing lines. You need to get the script down so thoroughly that you can do it in your sleep.
Well, maybe not in your sleep. But the key is, you know you’ve got your material properly internalized when you can recite it even while doing other stuff—the dishes, the laundry, whatever.
And that’s what you have to do with your presentation. You don’t need to know it line-by-line, word-for-word, but you need to know the general points well enough that you can deliver them without prompting from your slides and regardless of distraction (like when a technical glitch prevents you from using your slides).
How Long Should You Rehearse?
How long you rehearse your speech is up to you. At least one expert recommends 30 hours of rehearsal for a one-hour speech. (And that’s just the rehearsal part—she recommends many, many more hours in development of the content and visuals.)
And someone who commented on this article I wrote made the point that rehearsal is really a life-long endeavor, since a speech is the expression of the wisdom, experience and point of view you’ve accumulated and developed over a lifetime.
For me personally, I like lots of time. There is certainly more danger in being underprepared than over-prepared.
Preparation Equals Freedom
Some people fear that too much rehearsal undermines spontaneity and authenticity. Actors know the opposite to be true. Having your material internalized actually frees you to live in the moment.
To understand how, check out this post on Patricia Fripp’s Executive Coaching Blog. She was kind enough to excerpt a favorite portion of my book, 11 Deadly Presentation Sins.
And, of course, there’s a lot more in the book itself if you’re interested.