Practice Makes Perfect . . . Presentations (Or at Least Helps Improve Them)
When we work with clients on their presentation skills, we usually ask this question at the beginning of the session: Do you practice your presentation before you deliver it, and if so, what does that practice entail? Here are the most frequent responses:
▪ “I usually don’t practice because I don’t have time.”
▪ “I never practice because I want my presentation to be fresh and extemporaneous.” (This one’s a particular favorite of ours. NOT!)
▪ “I go over what I’m going to say in my head.”
▪ “I practice the presentation while I’m driving.”
▪ “I ask my spouse to listen to it.”
You Need to Practice
If you tend to skip practice or if your practice falls short of what’s ideal, you’re not alone; you’re typical of most presenters. But as our parents, teachers and coaches told us, “Practice makes perfect.” Or at least, it helps improve performance. Athletes, musicians and other performers certainly know that. So, make sure practice – proper practice – is part of your preparation for every business presentation you deliver.
How does practice work? Whenever we learn a new skill, we’re changing how our brain is wired. Scientists describe the brain as “plastic” – in other words, it remains “soft” or changeable rather than “hard” or fixed throughout our lives.
When we perform any task, we’re activating different portions of our brain. For example, when we deliver a presentation, the brain is coordinating a very complex set of actions such as motor function (movement, gestures, etc.), visual and audio processing (eye contact, voice volume and inflection, etc.) and verbal language skills (our message, the words we choose, the stories we tell, etc.).
The first time we practice our presentation, it’s usually poorly delivered – it’s not fluid, we forget some of our points, we lack energy, we misspeak, we’re anxious, etc. We’ve all been there. But with additional practice, we see dramatic improvement – we nail our points, we look and sound energetic, we’re confident.
Practice gets the brain prepared to coordinate all the activities that go into delivering a speech or presentation. During practice, we’re triggering a pattern of electrical signals through our brain. The goal, through repetition, is to trigger the right patterns. You do this by practicing the right things (e.g., sustained eye contact with the audience, high energy, etc.) rather than the wrong things (e.g., eye “darting” or no eye contact, “business poker face,” etc.).
If you don’t correct your mistakes during practice, you’ll be strengthening the wrong brain signals. (If you’re a golfer, you know how important it is not just to practice, but to practice the right stance, grip and swing!) In short, if you want to improve your presentation skills, you must practice repeatedly, get feedback on that practice (e.g., through video or a reliable colleague) and practice the correct skills.
How to rewire your brain during practice. For more than four decades, we’ve been offering our clients this advice about how to practice a presentation: Three times, aloud, on your feet, into a recording device.
How do I Practice?
In light of what we said above, you now know what repetition accomplishes during practice – it helps you (i.e., your brain) eliminate past errors and remember the successful responses. Three practices can accomplish that. If your presentation is 20 minutes, practice all 20 minutes. Don’t stop or skip some parts (because you’re unhappy with your performance). Soldier through it, knowing that it will improve later. You don’t need to do all three practices at one time. You might spread them over several days – shortly before the actual presentation. Don’t cram! In other words, doing all three practices or even one of them at 6:00AM the day of the presentation is a bad idea. (It’s no more effective than “pulling an all-nighter” before finals was in college!). Also, be sure the presentation you’re practicing is in its final form. There’s no value in practicing material that will change. As our founder Dan Ammerman was fond of saying, “Plan your work, then work your plan.”
During practice, vocalize. In other words, talk. Say the words aloud, not silently. When the opening of a presentation is a self intro, some people skip that part during practice. After all, you know who you are, right? Wrong! You must know exactly what you’re planning to say about yourself – how much detail you want to provide. The time to determine that is during practice, not during the main event. Also, don’t sub-vocalize during practice – saying some parts of the presentation in hushed tones, almost silently (usually because you’re unsure of the material or because you know it well), and others loudly and forcefully.
Most presentations are delivered standing. So, practice them that way. It also helps if you can replicate the setting you’ll be in. Will you be delivering in a large auditorium or small conference room? (In preparing for his phenomenally successful product introductions, Steve Jobs practiced at the actual venue he’d be using.) Will the presentation be more formal (e.g., behind a lectern) or informal (standing in front of the audience)? For your prompts, where will you be putting your laptop or notes? (Remember, if you’re using PowerPoint, the screen in the room is meant for the audience, not you.) In those situations where you’ll be delivering sitting (volume and energy tend to go down), practice while sitting (lean forward and increase your volume).
Video is the best teaching tool ever invented for feedback on presenting. Record and review/critique your practices. Use a smart phone if you don’t have access to a stand-alone camera. Some of the things to note during review include:
▪ Are there any words, phrases or sentences that should be deleted or changed (perhaps because you stumble over them)?
▪ Is your eye contact with the audience good or is there too much reliance on notes?
▪ How’s your energy level – both visual (change in facial expression) and vocal (volume, inflection)?
▪ What about stance – Standing erect? Excessive movement (swaying, pacing)? Good gestures?
▪ How long is your presentation?
Prepare for Questions
Don’t forget about Q&A. As we said earlier, most presenters fail to practice or to practice effectively. Practicing for Q&A is even rarer or usually gets short shrift. But you can, and should, practice for this important segment of most presentations. Here’s how:
Before presenting, identify the questions you’re most likely to get, as well as the questions you hope no one asks. Vocalize your answers rather than simply thinking about how you’ll respond. Although this approach takes some time, it’s more effective than just having written answers (developed by you or someone else).
We coach a lot of executives on their presentation skills. These are busy folks and we know that time is at a premium for them. But we tell them not to expect a stellar performance from themselves if they simply don’t have time or the will to practice. That same harsh truth applies to the rest of us as well.