We all know the importance of practice to master anything in life. Whether it’s learning to play the piano, kicking a ball into the goal, or solving math equations. The most accomplished musicians, athletes, and mathematicians have one thing in common: they practice, practice, practice.
Regular, effective practice is invaluable.
You can’t hire someone to practice for you. ~ H. Jackson Brown, Jr.
Unfortunately, in the business world, we do not allocate enough time to practice our presentations or pitches.
You can have the most structured, cleverly planned presentation ever—but if you’re not familiar with it, if you have not internalized it, you will not have the impact that you want. The excuse I hear most often is “I’m too busy.”
An under-practiced presentation usually results in a mis-timed, less confident performance.
The benefits to the business and your personal reputation are well worth the effort.
Running through the presentation even only once, out loud, can have enormous benefits.
- Practice reduces stress levels and increases confidence levels;
- Practice reduces filler words (um, ah, er, so) and hesitation;
- Practice results in a slower speaking pace (which feels more controlled and confident and gives the audience the time to absorb the information being shared);
- Practice increases eye contact, genuine smiles and intentional emphasis on important points;
- Practice creates more connection with the audience and strengthens the impact of the message.
I suspect that another reason that too few people practice before their high-stakes presentation is because they don’t know how to practice effectively.
You can ensure that your precious practice time is effective by following these six tips:
- Develop an outline of your presentation instead of a script. Word for word scripts are difficult and stressful for most people to memorise. If your presentation is longer than about 10 minutes, you may want to use cue cards to help if you forget what you wanted to say. The outline will again be useful here, instead of a full script, as you will sound and look (eye contact!) more natural and convincing if you “speak to” your points, rather than read, verbatim, a script.
- Practice speaking to your points. Once you have an outline, you want to become very familiar with your presentation. Speaking, out loud, to your points will lead to a more fluent delivery. You will be more likely to find the right “turn of phrase” when you’re in front of the audience if you’ve already formulated the words previously.
- Memorise the opening and closing. Doing so will help you feel more confident and make sure your message is clear. The first 30 seconds of your presentation are crucial. If you can present the opening, exactly as you want it to be, then you will feel more confident moving to the body of your presentation. Your audience will also be more likely to be on your side, engaged and eager to hear more, if your opening is well-practiced and confident. Similarly, finishing strongly, with your last couple of sentences flowing naturally and confidently out of your mouth, will leave the audience with a clear message and positive impression of you. Often, you’ll have your call to action (CTA) included in either the opening and/or the closing. The more concise and direct your CTA is, the more impact your message will have.
- Record yourself (voice or video) and playback, multiple times, to internalise the flow of the presentation. Similar to listening to a song over and over, you can find yourself knowing what comes next in your presentation if you listen to it multiple times. A recording can also be useful to understand how you come across to the audience—your use of voice, level of energy and enthusiasm, etc.
- Practice as close to reality as possible – stand up, speak out loud, look out to the imaginary audience, use a clicker and your PowerPoint slides, practice holding a microphone or your notes. If you have the opportunity to practice on the stage or in the room where you will actually present, then use it! Practicing in an environment close to the “reality” will make you feel calmer when you’re actually in the spotlight.
- Get help from a presentation coach. Practicing with an audience is very helpful, but sometimes colleagues are focused on the content and accuracy, rather than the structure of the presentation (how you “perform”, how you use your hands, voice, etc.) A presentation coach is a great investment and is a great use time if you want to take your presentation to the next level.
Adequate practice is often overlooked and not prioritized, but it will make a difference to your confidence levels, your performance and the audience’s perception of you and your message.
Try practicing your next presentation, pitch or high-stakes conversation and see what a difference it makes!