Practice Makes Your Pitch Perfect
When you give a public speech or presentation, you are going into battle—a battle for your audience’s attention. Your opponents are daydreams, work emails, video games, and every friend your audience has ever made, all of whom are posting hilarious memes on social media.
Will your PowerPoint presentation alone be enough to win the day? Probably not. The key to making your presentation as interesting and effective as possible is to practice, practice, practice.
Traditionally, warriors will train for years before going into battle. TED Talk speakers take “weeks or months” to prepare their speeches. You can, at the very least, give your presentation a run-through (or better, three) before attempting to give your speech in public. Time well spent will benefit your audience, your message, and your reputation.
“You can only fight the way you practice.” Miyamoto Musashi, from A Book of Five Rings: The Classic Guide to Strategy
But it’s not just the quantity of practice, although that is a key component. It’s also the quality of your rehearsals.
Here are a few ways to make the most of your precious preparation time.
- Ignore people who say they do better speaking off the cuff. They are like supermodels claiming “they eat whatever they want.” You will almost certainly do better with a quick rehearsal. If you still aren’t sure, here’s a five-minute video that explains the neuroscience of how practice can help improve your performance.
This five-minute video on the neuroscience behind “practice makes perfect” will convince you want to run through the presentation again.
- Vulnerability is a leadership trait. Some people avoid practice because they want to have an excuse to fail. You don’t want to feel vulnerable to the harsher sort of criticism that follows, when you’re genuinely trying your best. Practice anyway. Successful leaders let themselves be vulnerable. No effort is wasted, when it’s made for your team.
- Get rid of distractions. Turn off your phone. Log out of Facebook. Don’t do this while cooking dinner. The world can wait a few minutes while you run through your talk, and you’ll get so much more out of each rehearsal if you focus.
Better yet, put your phone in another room entirely.
- Don’t make time, block it out on your calendar. You’re not going to suddenly be less busy. Schedule three blocks of time to rehearse your presentation, and stick to it.
- You need at least three practice sessions: The first is a “talk through.” Use your notes and don’t worry about giving a polished performance. The second is a “walk through,” without notes, practicing your PowerPoint, stage presence, and a timer to make sure you’re not running over. The third time should be your best effort.
- Take breaks in between practice sessions. Space your rehearsals out, if you can. Your brain will subconsciously improve your delivery with its own internal practice sessions. Practicing right before bedtime is another way to take advantage of your brain’s subconscious skills.
Let your subconscious mind handle it.
- Rehearse material in logical order. Give the presentation from beginning to end. Don’t skip around. The words you use in the final performance matter less than presenting the content as a narrative, with a clear dramatic structure, and/or in a clear, logical manner.
- Pace Your Self. It helps to give your talk in a natural voice. Make sure that you aren’t speaking too fast. Also, give yourself enough time to pause briefly between important points or different sections to allow the audience to process what you’ve said.
- Practicing in front of people is tough. Almost everyone finds it more stressful to stumble through an unpolished presentation in front of peers. Just don’t avoid rehearsing, because you can’t face them right now. Find a friend, family member, or a coworker (outside your department) who’ll listen. Your practice audience might also be able to give you constructive criticism, for example, if they did not understand a point that you had made.
- Time is a precious commodity. Use your rehearsals to edit out extraneous information. Put your speech through the “so what” test. Does it matter to your audience? If not, either flip the focus, so it does, or consider deleting that part of the presentation. The shorter your battle for the attention of the audience, the more likely that you will win.