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Practice Pointers for Polished Presentations

Happy New Year! As we begin another year, most of us take stock of our personal and professional lives. We resolve to eat better, get more exercise, make those difficult calls, try new marketing techniques and otherwise stretch ourselves to accomplish things we haven’t been able to before.

A suggestion I have for those of you who would like to improve your presentation skills, is to learn to practice more efficiently. As I have noted in previous columns, the issue of practice and rehearsal generally gets short shrift in today’s hectic world. This has resulted in a number of problems. Unprepared speakers are unable to communicate their message, leaving the audience confused and bored. Speakers aren’t asked back, which is the worst thing that can happen, because audiences’ time is precious, too. When someone takes time to hear a speaker, they want to take something away. Nothing is more off-putting than feeling as if you’ve wasted your time, that you didn’t get what you came for.

In my consulting business, practice is always the first thing to go. When I suggest to my clients that for them to deliver a top-flight presentation, it will take hours of practice, they look at me as if I am from another planet. They seem to think that practice and rehearsal is only for professional speakers, i.e., people who depend on speaking for their income. However, when we delve a little deeper, it almost always comes out that indeed, they need to communicate and present to their clients better and colleagues who do excel as speakers get the plum assignments, promotions and raises.

So this New Year, I would like to give you 8 pointers on practicing that will use your valuable time efficiently and have you looking more professional when you deliver your next presentation.

  1. Understand the practice to performing ratio. Generally speaking, the ratio is 10 hours of practice for each hour of performing (10:1). This includes all the talking to yourself (see below). However, since each time you speak you become more familiar with your presentation, your need to practice decreases. Of course, issues that must be factored in include time between presentations, audience make-up and importance of the presentation. For example a keynote speech will require more rehearsal than a panel presentation.
  2. Talk to yourself. You know all those people you see in their cars or walking down the street mumbling? They’re not crazy, they’re practicing! Turn off the radio or Walkman and use some of the moments you have alone to run through concepts, practice openings and closings, and rehearse stories and timing for jokes. Limit this time to approximately one paragraph.
  3. Be systematic. Instead of waiting until just before your presentation to begin the rehearsal process, give yourself more advance time. This way you can set aside 15-20 minutes each day instead of hours a day that you may not have when you most need them. As soon as you get the assignment, begin organizing your material and saying it aloud. You may not be able to get through the entire presentation in those few minutes a day, but you will be able to polish segments so you can put it together as you get closer. The week of the presentation, do complete run-throughs each day.
  4. Use tools such as video, audio and mirrors. The video camcorder has been the greatest boon for speakers in history. There is simply no substitute for seeing yourself as others see you. Video doesn’t lie about the way you move and sound. As you begin your full run-throughs, set up the camera, record yourself and be sure to play it back. ( A lot of people conveniently forget this last part.) During earlier rehearsals, audiotape and mirrors are quite helpful. And there are some wonderful little digital audio recorders on the market. Literally no bigger than a thumb drive with great quality that you can then plug right into your computer and download for an MP3.
  5. Use friends and colleagues as sounding boards. Ask for honest feedback. Family members can also be helpful.
  6. Incorporate visual aids. Include visuals – PowerPoint, overheads, flip chart, etc.- in the rehearsal process. Fumbling with the equipment is a presentation killer.
  7. Write down stage directions. On your speaker notes, jot down stage directions such as “turn off projector, put up slide #3, move toward audience,” and anything else that you would like to do but may not remember under the pressure of delivering the presentation.
  8. Get out there and speak! Although rehearsal and practice are essential to delivering a polished presentation, they’re not the same as actually doing it. To a large degree, presenting is on the job training. You become truly exceptional only if you get out there and do it, a lot.

One more thing – practicing can be tedious and boring which is another reason many people don’t do it. But try to take the long view – the more you practice, the better you’ll become and the practice to performing ratio will decrease. Then you’ll have more time to go on that diet, get some exercise, be nicer to your kids!

Copyright 2001 Ruth Sherman. All Rights Reserved.

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