Practice makes perfect. We’ve all been told this a million times over. Practice will not only prepare you for excellent delivery, but it is also the single best way to calm your pre-presentation nerves. But when it comes to your educational presentations, what exactly does this entail? How can you best practice?
When and How
Practice must take place in advance and out loud. This means your entire preparation schedule may need to move earlier than usual, particularly if you are a last minute preparer. The reason being, you need enough time to rehearse your entire talk out loud multiple times. According to Carmine Gallo, author of Talk Like Ted: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds, you must rehearse your entire presentation a minimum of 10 times to be adequately prepared. Given that presentations may be 30-45 minutes in length, she recommends giving yourself a minimum of 10 days for this rehearsal period. Remember that you don’t always have to rehearse the talk straight though. You can rehearse high impact moments separately, moments like the opening or closing segments, to make sure these really pack a punch.
While some initial rehearsal is best done alone to help you work out the kinks in your slide transitions, jokes and stories, it is a good idea to get some feedback on your presentation prior to taking it to an audience. This can be done in a variety of ways:
- Mirror – You can give yourself feedback! Rehearse your presentation in front of a mirror and observe your body language. Do you notice anything distracting? What do you do that really emphasizes a point? Can you do these things more deliberately? If you find you are unable to concentrate on delivering the presentation and self criticism simultaneously, don’t worry…
- Camera – We all carry video cameras in our pockets at all times now! Put yours to good use. Set up a tripod and capture your rehearsal on video. When you watch it back, pay attention to all the elements of your delivery, including your voice, hand gestures, and body language.
- Friend – Getting feedback from a trusted friend or colleague is invaluable. Particularly for any high stakes presentation, you should aim to rehearse several times before one or more colleagues. They can give you feedback on all your presentation skills, and can also help you workshop jokes and stories to deliver even more punch. They can also help you anticipate questions you will get from your audience (see below).
- Audience – Ideally, once you’ve crafted a talk, you get to deliver it more than once! Each time you give your presentation, seek feedback from your audience. Sometimes this will be in formal evaluation forms, but if your venue isn’t offering that, you can always ask for your own feedback. Anand Swaminathan recommends handing out comment cards. The audience can use these to provide general feedback, but it can also be useful to direct their feedback. Ask them to write down three things they learned from your talk. If these aren’t matching your teaching goals, you have restructuring to do before you give the presentation again.
Preparing for Questions
An often overlooked area of preparation is preparing for the questions you may receive. While sometimes questions can catch us off guard, many are likely anticipated and you can rehearse those answers as well. In your rehearsal process, ask your trusted colleague what questions they had after your delivery and then practice answering those!
To Script or Not to Script
People often ask how closely they should script their presentations. Is the goal to have a tight script and deliver the talk word for word each time? Or rather, have a general idea of what you will say and deliver a more free form version in the moment. This is a difficult question to answer, and ultimately it comes down to your skill level and comfort. The argument against a tight script is that if you are very closely memorized, while delivering the text your brain may not be with you. You could be thinking other thoughts, become distracted by something in the room, but your memorized brain will run a bit on autopilot. That is, until it stops. When you are tightly memorized, if you fumble, get distracted, or lose your place, it can be harder to pick up where you left off. I have seen many excellent talks get derailed in this way. Picture the actor who has to call for his “line.” You don’t want this to be you.
That being said, there are certain portions of your presentation that will likely benefit highly from scripted rehearsal and performance. Moments of high impact like the opening and closing of the talk, jokes or emotional stories, all often improve with very specifically crafted wording. I generally rely on and recommend a combination. Script important moments, but in your rehearsal, play around with some improvisation and free form delivery. This will keep the important moments crisp while allowing your presentation to have the air of spontaneity and allowing you to remain quick on your feet (or rather brain and tongue) to correct for any mistakes.
Practice is a skill that itself must be practiced. Before any presentation, rehearsal must take place many times over and out loud. Seek feedback, either through modalities in which you assess yourself or if possible from a friend or colleague. Each time you deliver your presentation, seek feedback from your audience. Consider scripting high-impact moments of your talk, but in your rehearsal play around with some improvisation so you remain nimble in your final delivery.