Delivery Tips: Yes, You Should Rehearse Your Presentations

Find time to do some rehearsal

This article from from TJ Walker asks the question “should I rehearse my presentations?” and answers with a resounding “YES!” Of course he’s right. He’s also right that it’s a great idea to record yourself rehearsing your talk and review it so you can get a better sense of how you’re doing. I especially like his advice to find the best part of your talk and do more of whatever it is that is working. Too many presenters focus exclusively on what isn’t working and find themselves paralyzed by it.  Learning what you do well and emphasizing that is a much more effective strategy.

I worry, though that he puts too much emphasis on the idea of making a video, which many would-be presenters will simply find too intimidating or time-consuming.  If you’re a politician or you’re giving a big keynote speech to a ballroom full of people it’s certainly a good idea to make and review a recording of yourself.  But many of the small presentations we do every day don’t require this sort of preparation and  we often can’t find the time to do this degree of rehearsal for those that really are important.

The truth is that any kind of preparation you can do is a good thing. Review your slides, study your notes, deliver your presentation to your cat if it helps you. Just try to find time for some sort of rehearsal.

Great Presentations Require Courage

Far too many presenters are controlled by their fear.  They worry about making a negative impression so they create slides they can hide behind and wind up making no impression on their audience at all.

Creating a presentation that’s truly memorable requires courage;  you have to step out from behind your PowerPoint slides and find a way to really engage your audience.  What I like most about this valedictory speech from high school senior Alaine Caudle is that she manages to be highly effective even though she isn’t perfect.  She gets the beginning or her song wrong and starts over and the whole thing probably goes on a little too long.  But it’s clear that the risks she takes and her enthusiasm have totally won over the crowd.  Maybe it’s not the “Greatest Valedictorian Speech Ever!” but it’s probably the best one most of the people in the audience have seen.

Next time you need to put together a presentation ask yourself what you can do to make your presentation stand out.  Rapping may not be a good idea for most of us, but surely there’s something you can do to make an impression.

Public Speaking Blunders: Obama Toasts the Queen

Mistakes can happen to anyone, even our highly-polished President.  Sometimes there are strict rules and protocols that must be followed for presentations.  As a speaker it’s your job to be aware of them. So make sure to ask when the orchestra is going to play at any of your talks and if the Queen is supposed to pick up her glass first.

I wonder how the bows and curtsies went….

Presentations are Relationships with your Audience

I wish that we had a better word for presentations.  It’s not just that I get tired of writing the same word over and over and want to squeeze in synonyms like “talk,” “seminar,” or “meeting” for a little variety.  I can’t help but feel that the word we use to describe them is key to what’s wrong with a lot of our presentations.  Unlike some of the other words we might use to describe an event with a speaker and an audience, “presentation” suggests a one-way flow of information, one person getting up and talking while others sit passively and take it in.

Unfortunately, this is the way most talks actually work.  You type up slides with bullet points for what you have to say and then get up in front of a group to regurgitate what you’ve written.  The audience slumps in their seats while you pray that they absorb something, anything,  from your material.  If that doesn’t seem to be happening, at least you hope they don’t snore too loudly.  Then you send them off at the end with the benefit of your wisdom and experience.


Besides being boring and ineffective, the presenter has to do all of the work at events like this.  Whether the presentation is effective or not is all up to them.  They have to find something valuable to say and be entertaining enough to keep the audience paying attention.  The speaker has to connect enough dots in the minds of their listeners that they see that the presentation is relevant to them and has been useful enough that they don’t resent the time that they’ve spent there.

What do we expect from the audience?  Not much.  The audience rarely has a role to play in what happens during the presentation and little stake in how things turn out.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. A much more effective approach is to structure your talks as dialogues with the audience rather than a one way flow of information from the speaker to the audience.   In order to make your presentations more successful you should try to think of them as relationships between you and your audience that are centered around the topic at hand. Rather than talking at your audience you need to have a conversation with them.  The presenter and the audience both need to be paying attention to each other.  Presenters need to understand how their audiences feel about what they have to say and tailor their presentation to suit the needs of their audiences.

Thinking about your presentation as a relationship with your audience is something you should be doing from the moment you start planning what you’re going to say.  The success or failure of your presentation can only be judged by the impact you have on them— have they paid attention, have you been able to persuade them, have you met their expectations?  If not, your presentation isn’t likely to meet your goals— unless your only goal was simply to survive your presentation.

Since your success or failure ultimately depends on what your audience thinks, the first thing you should think about when pulling together your material shouldn’t be “what do I have to say?”, but “what do I have to say to convince this audience?” or “why would they even care about what I have to say?”  If you can’t answer those questions it’s time to rethink the idea of giving a talk in the first place.

Be realistic about your resources

Before you sit down and start creating an elaborate deck of slides, handouts, and multimedia to support your talk, take a moment to step back and take stock of your resources. What do you realistically have the time and resources to develop? Creating effective slides can take a great deal of time and, if you’re not a designer yourself, can require outside assistance in finding or creating the right images.  Do you even have a budget?

Similarly, developing professional-looking handouts takes time and, depending on what’s available to you, help from an outside printer.  Video is an excellent tool for grabbing the attention of your audience, but producing clips that really look good always takes more time, effort, and resources than people expect.  We’re all so used to professional video on television (and even on the web) that do-it-yourself productions look, well, amateurish.  Which is generally not the look you’re going for.

When we’re creating our own presentations we often brainstorm about all of the elements that we’d like to include and then go through a reality check to see what we can actually accomplish in the time we have.  We’d encourage you to do the same so you don’t spend a lot of your time and resources developing something that you wind up not using or, worse, using even though you haven’t had the time to get it quite right.

What kind of presenter are you: The (Real) Enthusiast

In the universe of public speaking the (real) enthusiast is unusual but not actually rare.  They’re sort of like US dollar coins– they’re out there, but they tend to be common in just a few places.  You’re unlikely to receive a Sacajawea dollar from anywhere other than a post office or a vending machine and– while it’s certainly possible– you’re unlikely to find enthusiasts outside of a few roles where they can make use of their daredevil-ish lack of fear.

These are the people who volunteer for everything.  They tend to be leaders, people who are confident (sometimes overconfident) about their abilities.  Performers and people like teachers and trainers tend to be enthusiasts.  They like the attention, the adrenaline rush they get from being onstage.  Glossy pharmaceutical reps are usually enthusiasts, a skill they often made use of building human pyramids before they were recruited from their college cheerleading squads.

Enthusiasts tend to recognize the benefits they can get from being a good speaker, but they can also be sloppy.  They rely too much on their naturals gifts.  Sometimes they think so highly of their own abilities that they don’t see the need to prepare and will waste their audience’s time on a poorly thought-out presentation.

The challenges for enthusiasts are very different than they are for other kinds of speakers.  They aren’t concerned about nerves, but they need to make sure that they actually have something to say and that they aren’t just up on stage enjoying the sound of their own voice.  Enthusiasts who don’t focus on the needs of their audiences can come across as glib, arrogant, and insincere.

Of course, like everything else in the Universe, these four categories of speakers aren’t totally clear-cut.  Some people can have characteristics of more than one type of presenter, or these qualities can change over time.

I’m usually an enthusiastic volunteer, for example, but I always get nervous when it’s time to speak.  Even going around a table and introducing myself makes me nervous.  What if I forget my name?

But I get over it quickly.  And practice really is the key.  I only got comfortable talking in front of a group when I had a job where I had to do it every day.  There just couldn’t have been a class if I didn’t teach it.

The important thing for anyone who does presenting or public speaking is to know what kind of speaker you are, the challenges you face, and to have a plan for overcoming them.  What we don’t want you to do is use a label to justify your excuses, for you to think “well, I’m a refuser and I’m just not going to do it.”  That kind of thinking doesn’t help at all.

What kind of presenter are you: The Reluctant Speaker

If you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed that three out of our four categories of speakers are nervous presenters to one degree or another.  That may seem a little excessive at first, but it actually understates the percentage of people who have some level of fear of public speaking.  Very few of us are uniformly enthusiastic public speakers– far less than 25 percent.

Of our four types, the reluctant speaker is probably the hardest to recognize.  They may volunteer for every opportunity to speak and then always be nervous about it.  Or they may see speaking as something they have to do but not put a lot of thought into the benefits that it can bring them.  They may come across as “naturals” even though they feel that they are awkward and not doing a very good job. If you give them enough practice, they can get used to presenting and become enthusiasts.

The reluctant speaker probably occupies the sweet spot for public speaking.  They’re capable of delivering a talk without too much worry and fuss, and they are not so overconfident that they don’t bother to prepare for their presentations.  (A little bit of fear can actually be a good thing).

The challenge for the reluctant speaker is that they not backslide and let the occasional twinge of nerves make them decide that they don’t like public speaking or that they’re not good at it.  They need to make sure that they keep presenting, trying new things and working on their skills rather than just resting in their happy position.

When NOT to have a live presentation

If you aren’t going to take advantage of your relationship with the audience– the main reason for having a live presentation– you really shouldn’t have one at all.  If you’ve ever attended a presentation that felt like a waste of time, this is probably why you felt this way.  And you never want your audience to feel like you’ve wasted their time.

If all you have to present are facts, a live presentation is overkill and likely to bore your audience to sleep.  Try an email or memo instead.  On the other hand, if you want to change peoples’ minds or get them to do something, a live presentation with an emotional element to persuade them is definitely the way to go.

What kind of presenter are you: The Resister

Of the four types of presenters, Resisters have the most in common with Refusers.  For our purposes, we can really just consider them to be Refusers who can’t or don’t say “no.”  They’d really rather not speak to an audience but  for whatever reason they’re able to make the leap that the Refusers can’t.  Maybe their job requires them to do some occasional public speaking or they find themselves in a social situation that requires them to step out of their comfort zone.  Many would-be Refusers find themselves forced to speak at things like weddings and funerals, where the emotional content of the event makes it extremely hard to say no.

Pretty much every Refuser who attempts to overcome their fear of public speaking goes through a Resister phase as they get more comfortable.  The challenge for resisters is to stop thinking about the possibility of refusing a speaking assignment and just accept the opportunity, because the more you focus on your fear the more likely it is to paralyze you or negatively effect your presentation. Unfortunately, since they decline every opportunity to speak that they can, Resisters often don’t get as much practice at presenting as they need in order to improve their skills.  They don’t get familiar with the tools of public speaking and tend to always think of themselves as nervous speakers.

In my own experience, I never really felt confident speaking to a group until it was something that was part of my routine responsibilities.  When I started graduate school I suddenly found myself teaching classes several times a week and simply had no choice but to do it if I wanted to stay enrolled in school and get paid.  Most of the stuff that I studied as a Literature student may not apply in my professional life, but learning that with a little preparation I could get up and lead a discussion was immensely valuable and helped me land my first “real” job as a trainer.

The challenge for any Resister is to stop focusing on their fear so they don’t start to backslide into Refusing.  Try thinking of your presentations as opportunities to succeed rather than to fail;  I can almost guarantee that focusing on the positive aspects will help you overcome your nerves.  And as much as you can, try to think of presentations as a normal part of your everyday life and career rather than as momentous and possibly disastrous events.

Get a second opinion

Practicing your presentation in front of an empty room is a great way to get to know your own presentation and work out any kinks.  But delivering it to someone you trust  before the “real” event can be even more valuable.

A second (third, or fourth) opinion can actually be useful at every stage of readying your presentations.  Getting a second opinion as early as while you work to define your objective can be immensely helpful.  Other people will often spot the errors in our thinking much faster than we can– sometimes we work so long and hard on an idea that we’re too close to it to see where we’ve gone astray.  If you’re not very good with design, having a friend who is and can give you feedback on your visual aids  can be invaluable;  just don’t expect them to do all of your work for you if you want to stay friends.

Even a second set of eyes to proofread your slides and handouts can be very useful.  But the most valuable way to get the input of someone whose opinion you value is to do a full run-through of your presentations for them and ask them to tell you what they honestly think– what worked, what didn’t, if you were persuasive, where they got bored.  If you tend to say “um” a lot, ask them to count how many time you do it;  just knowing that they’re doing this can be a very effective way of encouraging you to stop.

What’s most important here is that you find someone you can trust to give you constructive criticism.  Having someone just tell you that you’re doing a great job doesn’t help at all.  Having someone who offers bad advice is worse.

Obviously, rehearsing your presentation for an audience is a lot of work and isn’t something you’re going to do for every presentation.  But it’s worth the effort for the important ones.