If you want to be truly prepared to deliver your speech, you need to do more than simply run through your notecards or Powerpoint slides five or six times. More times will help, but it still won’t get you there. To nail your speech, you need to seriously challenge yourself while you practice. Here’s how.
A Couple of Important Notes Before We Start:
These suggestions will work great if you’re planning to speak from limited bullet points, from short cues taken from slides, or completely from memory. On the other hand, if you’re planning to read your entire presentation word for word off of notecards or slides, I suggest you read this post and get back to me.
Also, I’m assuming that you’ve already made sure your content is clear and organized well. You want to do as much of that work as possible beforeyou start practicing
Here we go then! Start with the first suggestion, move on to the second, and work your way down the list.
1. Say the whole thing in front of the mirror.
The mirror is almost as unforgiving as the camera, and acts as a kind of editor, so it’s good to practice this way at the beginning. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve carefully prepared a section of a story or speech and when I stand in front of the mirror and deliver it, all I can say to myself is, “What were you THINKING?!”
It’s like the mirror calls us out. Any false sentiment or fakey gesture and the mirror shouts “STOP THAT RIGHT NOW! NOT ON MY WATCH!” Please note - this is necessary and good work, and will help you edit your speech. If it looks, feels or sounds awkward to you, it’s probably gonna seem like that to your audience as well. Tweak or cut until it feels good. More than once I’ve had to rework something between 5 and 10 times before I felt comfortable delivering it. But that reworking makes all the difference when you’re on stage, because it eliminates the second guessing that happens when something feels off.
I know that sometimes in this process you’re going to have that sinking “back to the drawing board” feeling. Just be glad that the mirror is essentially telling you here, in the privacy of your own home, that you’ve got spinach in your teeth, vs. letting you walk out on stage like that.
Now that you’ve gotten any glaring content problems out of the way, you’re ready to move on to #2.
2. Deliver your speech in a “larger than life” style.
By “larger than life”, I mean, make it BIG. Talk too loud. Vary your volume from high to low and back again. Exaggerate your pronunciation. Gesture hugely and ridiculously. Don’t stand in one place - take up a lot of space on the stage, or in your bathroom - wherever it is you’re practicing. Pause dramatically and stare at the audience inappropriately.
Here’s what’s going to happen. First, it will help you relax, because it’s so silly. You’re gonna laugh at yourself. If you didn’t laugh, go back, stand in front of a mirror, and do it bigger. Don’t stop until you crack yourself up. Second, important little light bulbs will go on. You’ll discover that you actually like saying just that one phrase in an almost “over the top” way. Or maybe you realize just how effective bringing the volume way down can be. You might notice that moving more makes you feel less nervous. Third, you’ll find that your range of expression is much broader than what you’ve likely experienced, and now you can pull from that range, adapting and incorporating certain elements into your speech.
3. Practice your speech while doing another task.
Washing the dishes is my preferred task of choice. In the shower is a little easier. (If you have to wrap a little note card in plastic wrap and set in in the shower caddy, go for it.) Walking somewhere also works well. The point is, you’re trying to get distracted. Because guess what? When you stand up to speak, you’re gonna be distracted. (In fact, I wrote a whole blog post about dealing with distractions which you can read here.) And you want to have trained yourself to power through those distractions.
In the beginning this is going to be hard. But keep working at it, and after awhile you’ll notice that you’re able to simply tune out everything except your presentation. (Just don’t, you know, stab yourself with a fork or forget to wash your armpits.)
4. Recite your talk as though something went awry.
Imagine that everything started out just fine, and then 4 minutes in, your outline spontaneously combusts and you don’t have another copy. The show must go on - what’re you gonna do? Or imagine that at slide #13 the computer crashes and you can’t just stand there waiting for the tech ambulance to come. Now what?
Insert these kind of worst case scenarios at various points in your speech and figure out how you would recover. It might mean you need to memorize your outline so you can continue to the next point. Or that you have a story prepared to make up for the lack of slides. There’s no one answer here, obviously. The point is, you’ll be really glad that you thought through these kinds of scenarios BEFORE they happened. And so will your audience.
5. Give your speech as fast as you can.
Saying your speech as fast as you can is simply a way to get the content firmly rooted in your brain. Repeat this exercise until you can do the whole thing at top speed. It’s very effective at showing you what areas you need to be more familiar with. It’s kind of fun, too.
Needless to say, you don’t ever want to actually deliver it this way. Ever.
6. Start your speech at random points and move forward.
Don’t always start from the beginning - that’s too easy, lol. Start at a sub-point or example and go from there. Do it again starting from somewhere else. And again. This is simply another way of becoming so familiar with your content that you don’t need the usual order to help you.
If you’re using a PowerPoint type program, this is also a great opportunity to learn how to jump quickly to different points in your slide deck.
7. Begin, stop, do something else, and start again.
This method is a little like #6, but instead of jumping around, you start at the beginning and take pauses along the way. So for example, if you’re at work, start your speech, reply to an email, resume for a couple of minutes, make a quick phone call, resume again and repeat until you finish your speech. If you’re at home, start, throw out the trash, resume for a few minutes, do a few yoga poses or play with your dog, and continue. Task switching is a different kind of distraction that presents a great challenge.
8. Practice while listening to the radio and doing something else.
For example, turn on the radio, start cooking dinner and get reciting. If you can move through your presentation with grace and ease while all of this is going on, good job, ‘cause you’re seriously rockin’ it. I’ve found that favorite songs make this already hard task even harder, ‘cause who doesn’t want to sing along?
9. Film yourself giving your presentation.
I’ve saved this technique for the end for two reasons. First, most people dread being filmed, but by now, you should be feeling much, much more confident about your material. Second, since (hopefully) you’re no longer focused on what you’re going to say, you can focus on how you’ll say it. Think about being present in your body, connecting with your (imagined) audience, and delivering your talk in a way that feels authentic and powerful. (And yes, that’s a whole other post….)
Now watch the video. If wine has to be involved at this point, I won’t judge you. After you’ve gotten over the initial shock, make a list of what you consider glaring problems. Now go back through and circle the ones you have control over. Think about possible solutions. Try them out, make adjustments, and record yourself again. Repeat a few times and you’ll see improvement, I promise.
You can also hire a speech coach to help you evaluate yourself if you find this step too difficult. Having this recording of yourself is an excellent place to start.
10. Stage a dress rehearsal.
Ask a few trusted friends and/or family members to watch you give your presentation. There’s nothing like a real audience to light your fire or scare the living daylights out of you, depending on how much you enjoy public speaking. Either way, you want to get used to that feeling of people staring at you. And laughing at your jokes. And smiling. And clapping.
And make this a full dress rehearsal, including shoes and jewelry, because what you wear can actually make a huge difference. While it’s important to look professional (you’ll want to find out in advance what level of formality is appropriate for the occasion), it’s equally important to FEEL GOOD in what you’re wearing. Feeling happy about what you’re wearing leads to more confidence onstage. So don’t leave this decision to the last minute.
If you’ve worked your way through all of these steps, congratulations! Be proud of yourself, because this kind of serious, intense practice will make a huge difference in your final presentation. Go here to see what it looks like when you’ve practiced like a pro.
If you need some more help and you want to start practicing with a pro, go here. If you’ve already filmed yourself and you’d like some feedback, go here. And if you know of another public speaker who could use a little practice (lol), hit one of the share buttons.