10 Presentation Tips: Tip No. 5 — Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse. And then Rehearse Some More!

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This is the fifth post in a 10-post series on tips for effective presentations. For an explanation as to why I’m adding this series to a data-oriented blog, see the intro to the first post in the series. To view other tips in the series, click here.

Tip No. 5: Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse. And then Rehearse Some More!

At the Web Analytics Wednesday in San Francisco the night before #ACCELERATE, June Dershewitz — one of the 20-minute session presenters — commented that her presentation was running right at 17 minutes. I was struck by the comment, because, like June, I knew that my 5-minute presentation was running right around 4:55, give or take 10 seconds.

Not surprisingly, June was relaxed as she spoke, the presentation flowed smoothly, and she ended comfortably on time. I followed up with her afterwards to confirm some of the details of her prep work, and she responded:

My presentation ran 17 minutes when I rehearsed it (which I did quite a few times). My friend and colleague Kuntal Goradia (one of the 5-minute speakers) and I practiced our speeches on each other – and anyone else who would listen – for about 2 weeks leading up to the conference. Our final rehearsal took place at 10:30pm the night before the conference, after we left WAW.

The point of rehearsal is by no means simply to ensure you will stay within any specified time limits. Rehearsal has a wealth of benefits:

  • It forces you to verbalize the material — you will be surprised how certain parts of your presentation have great visual support on the slide and are very clear in your head…but then come out of your mouth awkwardly.
  • It helps get you so familiar with the slides and the flow that you truly don’t need to glance at the presentation for a reference or reminder as to where you are
  • It helps you identify where the flow doesn’t quite work, where the visual material doesn’t quite support the spoken delivery, and where the core of a specific point actually needs to be altered — all of which lead to opportunities to adjust the slides themselves to support a more effective flow
  • It builds your confidence; once you know that you will be on time and you know when the key points are coming up and you know the flow…you can focus on engaging the audience rather than focusing on ancillary details
  • It enables you to practice “the physical” — where a slowing of the pace of the delivery, a simple (or dramatic hand gesture), a cock of the head, might really work

To be clear, the point of rehearsal is explicitly not to memorize your delivery verbatim. If you do that, then you will actually introduce more anxiety, as you will know that you will be “lost” if you forget a portion of the memorization. And, the delivery will likely come across as somewhat stilted, as the last half-dozen run-throughs will preclude any editing as you focus on rote memorization rather than polishing the content and delivery!

Obviously, rehearsals take time, and the longer the presentation, the longer it takes for a single run-through. For any presentation that is an hour or less, I recommend at least 6-10 “out loud” rehearsals. You don’t necessarily need a live audience for more than 1 or 2 of those (you do need to run through it in front of at least one person at least once — even better if you can get 2 or 3 people, ask them to take notes, and get their feedback), and you don’t necessarily need to be standing in a conference room with projected slides while you do it. I actually try to do run-throughs in a range of different situations — while driving (you can’t look at the slides when you’re looking at the road!), in a couple of different conference rooms, even sitting on a couch with my wife using my laptop as the “projector” (I have an awesome wife). By mixing up the environments, I’m conditioned to know that it’s the content that matters — not the specifics of the stage, projector, and seating configuration of the audience.

Still, a lot of my rehearsal occurs “in the gaps” — it’s almost impossible to carve out time in the middle of a busy work day to step away and rehearse, so I’ll often arrive at work a little early leading up to a big presentation and do a run-through before firing up my email. I’ll often mix that up with run-throughs at the end of the day just before I head home. It’s not that hard to find rehearsal time, in my experience, and it quickly becomes a habit — where you want to do another run-through because you’ve had a thought as to how you can clean up a bumpy spot or two.

Above all, though, rehearsal is about respect for the audience. No Broadway show — no high school play, for that matter — opens the doors for an audience on the first day the troupe gathers. There’s a reason for that, and that reason applies just as much to formal presentations as it does to plays — practice makes the delivery better.

For more tips on rehearsing for presentations, check out this post by Nancy Duarte.

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