There is one thing that will take you from being a good presenter to becoming a great presenter.

I’ve recently returned from 5 weeks travelling overseas. The first week back in New Zealand we ran a one-day presentation skills course. This is routine stuff for me. I’ve delivered the same material two to three times a week for five years.

I didn’t even think about rehearsing.

I wasn’t terrible. But sometimes my sentences didn’t quite go where I wanted them to. I didn’t click to go to the next PowerPoint slide at just the right moment. My timing was just a little off to get the biggest laugh.

I was good, but I wasn’t great.

For me the difference between being good and being great is rehearsal.

And a new study of competitive chess players reveals that this might be the case for many people. The more hours of practice a chess player puts in, the better they are. And that’s not because they’re more talented. The study compared two groups of competitive chess players – the first group were good, the second group were great. The research showed that the difference in ability was due to more practice hours. The researchers concluded:

Irrespective of skill level, stimulating deliberate practice will likely improve performance.

Why we don’t rehearse

You know in your gut that that ‘sall true. But you still don’t rehearse because:

1.  “It’s time consuming”

Get over it. Multiply the number of people who will be listening to you by the length of your presentation. A one-hour presentation to 30 people. That’s 30 hours of people time. Isn’t it worth doing a couple of rehearsals so that that 30 hours is worthwhile.

2.   “It makes me feel uncomfortable”

Rehearsing brings up fear – the fear you feel when you’re in front of the audience. So it’s tempting to sidestep the rehearsal. But instead of focusing on the fear, focus on the reduction in fear you’ll have as a result of your rehearsal. The knowledge that you’ve practised your presentation a couple of times and it hangs together well, will help.

3.   “I’ll get stale”

Rowan Manahan has a rant about the stale excuse on his blog:

Try using that ’stale’ line with a stage actor who endures weeks and weeks of rehearsal and then months or even years of 8-shows-a-week performances. Stale? In front of a full house who have paid 70-100 bucks a seat? I don’t think so! The enormous effort put in at rehearsal and the ongoing cycle of refresher rehearsals keeps the show alive and invigorated and fresh – not stale. What these performers display at every show, at every cast meeting and at every refresher is called professional pride and I sincerely wish that more presenters displayed it too.

4. “I can get away with winging it”

You’re deluding yourself. Here’s Nick Morgan to skewer your delusion:

The alternative, winging it, is never as good as you think it is.  And your audience won’t tell you the truth. Unfortunately, what happens is that the speaker who wings it gets pumped full of adrenaline, comes charging off the stage and asks the first person he sees, ‘how was it,’ with a big smile on his face.  Only a churl would reply with, ‘well, it was disorganized, there were lots of minor screw-ups, and you kept making the same points over and over again’.  Most people say, ‘it was great!’ and the speaker think to himself, ‘That’s all right then; next time I’ll do it the same way.  Obviously I’m too cool to rehearse’.

5. “I’m better when I’m unprepared”

Jason Fried from 37Signals recently posted on the company blog:

This year I’ve spoken at about a dozen or so conferences and another dozen or so meetings or classes or gatherings. What I’ve started to notice is that I’m better unprepared.

Then he compared two talks he’d recently given:

I’d never given the Software Curator talk before, so I practiced and practiced and practiced the night before. I was manic about it. I ran through it a few dozen times. When it came time to give the “Software Curator” talk, I was nervous. Not because I was speaking in front of a couple thousand people, but because I kept thinking about what I was supposed to say based on hours of practice. I kept reliving the practice, not living the moment. I keep reaching for the script in my mind instead of my current thoughts. I wasn’t happy with the talk at all.

Last week I spoke at the IDEA conference in Chicago. I had no idea what I was going to talk about. The topic was just “Getting Real” so it was pretty open ended. I went up on stage, grabbed the mic, and just started talking. No idea what the next sentence would be. I wandered through a bunch of ideas that came to mind in the moment. I think it was one of my better talks.

First, I wonder whether the audience would agree with Jason. Your own feelings about how a talk goes are not necessarily a good reflection of how the audience felt. But more important, the way that Jason rehearsed may not have served him well. The way he rehearsed resulted in him writing a script in his head. Just like a script on paper, having a script in your head has you “read” to your audience. That doesn’t help you connect and engage with your audience. Even more problematic, because the script was in his head rather than on paper, he also had to reach for the words. That had him concentrating on his content rather than the audience.

One of the goals of rehearsal is to have the content of your presentation so familiar to you that you don’t have to think about it. That means that during the presentation, your sole focus is on connecting with your audience. Chris Bonney has a useful analogy in his post The truth about winging it:

Think of it like basketball. You practice dribbling, free throws, and your jump shot until you can do them in your sleep. That way on game day when you’re in the flow of the game and are forced to read the other guy on the run, you’re able to adjust and still hit your jumper with no problem.

How can you rehearse to achieve this goal? A presentation is about communicating ideas not words. There are hundreds of different ways of saying the same thing. So the exact form of your sentences is not critical. Every time you rehearse make a point of saying it differently. That will reduce the risk of writing a script in your head.

If you want to be a great presenter, there’s no excuse for not rehearsing.

Other great posts on rehearsal:

TJ Walker argues that the only way to rehearse is by video. He argues that not watching yourself deliver your presentation is like sending out a critical written report or proposal without editing and proofreading.

Laura Bergells has Top 6 Touchy-Feely Presentation Rehearsal Tips. She stresses the value of rehearsing in front of people to replicate the emotional energy of the audience. If you don’t have people she recommends “hang pictures of friends, family, or colleagues.”

Joey Asher responds to people who say they don’t have time to rehearse for a new business pitch “If you don’t have time to rehearse, I guess I understand. But know this. One of your competitors probably wants to win enough to practice really hard. And with that in mind, they’re probably going to win.”

Lisa Braithwaite of SpeakSchmeak has a great post on the difference between preparing and overpreparing. here;s one of her indicators of overpreparing: “You’ve rehearsed a gesture, facial expression and movement for each moment of the presentation so there is no risk of spontaneity breaking out.”

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