Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!
Speaking is like playing sport, or learning an instrument. It‘s a physical skill that takes repetition and practice. And exactly as for sport and musical performance, being well prepared is the best way to pull it off. Preparation includes doing it.
In theatre there are staging calls, and technical rehearsals, and dress rehearsals, all of which give the performers an opportunity to see if the show works. A speech should be approached in the same way.
There are three big benefits to this.
First and most important is nerves. When you are nervous, you’ll manage better if you are familiar with what you’re doing. Rehearsal helps you preserve a calm exterior. Your lips and teeth and tongue and brain are unlikely to all desert you at once if you’ve run through it a few times in advance . When you are well practised, nerves may affect how you feel, but are less likely to affect what you do.
Secondly, when you are confident about what to say, you are free to focus on your audience and respond to them. You can stop worrying about the basics, and instead work with the room and keep your presentation dynamic and alive.
Recently there has been a lot of coverage of Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic Convention. He went off script. He adjusted his words to react and respond to his audience ‘in the moment’. You can do that too. You have to react when they laugh (or when they don’t), respond to any questions and deal gracefully with anything unexpected. You can do all that far more effectively if you are well and truly on top of your material.
Thirdly, if anything goes awry you won’t be put off . TV chefs always have a backup dish, “something they prepared earlier”. Why? Because things can (I am tempted to say things WILL) go wrong in ways you did not anticipate. You will handle them better if you are well rehearsed.
Not all people appreciate this. They don’t realise that getting up un-rehearsed is just like doing a piano exam without practising, or handing in the first draft of an essay, or expecting to play grade soccer without drilling your ball skills.
I recommend that you rehearse your presentation many times. Then you should rehearse it and rehearse it a few more times. Only stop rehearsing when you would rather dig ditches than go over your speech one more time.
1. Start by speaking it aloud, and edit out anything which is uncomfortable or awkward to say. If you’re using slides or technology of any sort you must run it through too, and practice co-ordinating your changes, and managing the screen while you talk.
2. Mark your notes up with stage directions: ‘look left’ look right’ ‘pause’ etc, and underline what to emphasise. Figure out any movements that may enhance your presentation – whether to step away from the lectern, make a gesture or move about.
3. Record yourself. When you play it back you will easily see for yourself what works and where adjustments are required. Amend your script or note down revised stage directions. Re-record and repeat as often as you have to, until you are happy with what you see. This might take you five attempts, it might take fifty – just persist. Most people are their own harshest critics so take it easy…you are probably better than you think.
4. Rehearse in front of an audience. This step is really worth it. The idea is to simulate the pressure of a real event – like the dress rehearsal of a play. Many workplaces have ‘lunch and learn’, a semi-formal opportunity for a presentation and discussion. Do one. Use the response of your colleagues to refine your presentation. If that’s not an option, try it out on family. If you have teens around they’re always up for it. Young people love the role reversal when an adult asks for their feedback – and they certainly give it to you straight. The feedback you get from this will either confirm what you are doing is OK, or it will tell you where you need to make changes. Most importantly it will also allow you to taste the nerves in advance – a good way to be able to cope with them.
You are now ready for the concluding step: the on-stage check.