Speak with Confidence: Perfect Practice

Stuffed Animals


“How many times a day should I practice my presentation?” my client asked me, after she and I had just spent nearly 2 hours on a Sunday afternoon rehearsing her presentation in a large meeting space at one of the big corporate campuses in the Twin Cities.  Her presentation was the following Thursday.  The CEO of the company was going to be there.  This was a big deal.

“As much as you need to, but not too much,” I said.  “Not more than twice a day.”

For some other people, I might have said, “at least twice a day.”  But, she was a tightly wound, nose-to-the-grindstone high achiever.  She could have given her 7-minute presentation that day.  She didn’t need to practice anymore (rehearse, yes; practice, no).

And, I also suggested HOW she practice and rehearse, because I’m a believer in what Vince Lombardi said about practice:

“Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”

In my experience (my own, painful, experience plus what I have observed), not only do many speakers not practice enough, but they also practice in self-defeating ways.

Speakers don’t practice their speech enough largely due to procrastination.  They just run out of time.  Procrastination also explains why the conclusion of a speech is often its weakest part.  People tend to write the conclusion last and, “Oops, I did it again! I ran out of time!”

How long should you practice?  My rule of thumb is at least an hour for every 10 minutes of your speech, or at least 6 times all the way through without stopping.  Of course this means you have already done “read-throughs” to get the flow right and that you have reduced your speech to keyword notes, so that at most you just glance at notes to keep on track.

For a longer presentation, say a 45 minute presentation, going through it 6 times from start to finish could be challenging.  So, what I have done is practiced in sections:  Introduction, Point 1, Point 2, Point 3, Conclusion.  AND, this is CRITICAL:  Always practice the transitions before and after each section.  Practicing the transitions before and after a section will help it flow in your mind and off your tongue when you put it all together.

Before you practice, step away from your speech.

The hardest, most-self-defeating practice habit for most speakers:  over-dependence on their written speech.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big believer in writing out your speeches to work out your thoughts, the logical flow, transitions, wording and catch phrases.  But writing a speech isn’t the same as writing an essay.  A speech is written for the ear, not the eye and should be more conversational.

Plan your speech structure. Write it out.  Read it for flow.  Sweat over it.  Get it to where you basically like it.  Reduce to keywords.  Set your speech aside and resist the temptation to look at it.  Practice from the keywords.  Record yourself.  Listen to the recording.  Revise your speech.  Then start your serious practice sessions.

Practice is usually a solo activity, but you will be performing in front of an audience.  To increase your comfort with an audience, first practice in front of a fake audience, not in front of a mirror (much too distracting!).  I used to place my daughter’s stuffed animals on the bed and speak to them, later, when my daughter moved out and took her stuffed animals with her, I simply drew crude faces on paper and taped them up so that I could practice making eye contact while speaking.

fake audience

Another way to practice that I have found useful is to practice a speech while engaged in another activity, such as driving (don’t do this during rush hour traffic!).  By practicing my speech with divided attention, I have added a level of difficulty to the speech, which I have found makes it easier for me to remember when I present to an audience.

In addition to practicing, you should rehearse.

In a rehearsal you stand up and run through your presentation exactly as if you were presenting it to an audience.  In fact, if you can rehearse with a live audience in the presentation room and with any equipment you will be using that’s the best scenario.  In a rehearsal, check out the sound equipment, run your presentation slides and have a backup plan in case of technical difficulties. Ideally you will video yourself—you will learn a lot! When I videoed my client, I didn’t have to point out how very serious she looked and sounded, she noticed it herself when we watched the video.

A great way to rehearse your presentation (or a portion of a longer presentation) is at a Toastmasters club.  Not only will you get a live (and compassionate) audience in low-stakes rehearsal, but you also will get valuable feedback during the evaluation portion of the meeting!

Do you have suggestions for “perfect practice”?

Nuts to Notes?

Nuts to Notes

Have you ever given a prepared speech without notes?

I remember the first time I did–it was for a Toastmasters speech contest.  I was nervous that I’d blank out, or that I wouldn’t say exactly what I had so carefully crafted on paper.

It was only a 5-7 minute speech, and I didn’t win the contest, but I had scored a major victory by giving it without notes.  I realized that I needed to give myself permission to deviate from the exact words I had written, and by doing so I was more conversational and engaging.

Is it time to say, “Nuts to notes!” and “go naked” into your presentations?

Maybe. But probably not for most presentations.

Notes are a simple aid to keep you on track.  I’ve seen plenty of professional speakers briefly refer to notes in presentations, too.

While you probably should include statistics and quotes on your notes (stuff you shouldn’t just make up), your notes don’t even have to be words!

To better jog your memory, consider using pictures or symbols.  I once did entire speech notes as pictures.  Here are the intro “notes”:

Open Your Eyes Capture

And here is what I said:

I’ll never forget the day I got my first pair of glasses. I was 8 years old. 

Without glasses, I couldn’t even read the big E at the top of the eye chart. 

But, when my mother and I walked out of the optometrist’s office, and I put on my glasses, I  felt a little like Dorothy in the Land of Oz.  It was a whole new world.

Mom. . . I can see the branches, the leaves on the trees.

Mom . . . I can read the signs.

I looked up at my mother.  A tear was trickling down her cheek.

“Mom . . . you have wrinkles!”

Actually, by the time I had practiced the speech, I didn’t need these pictures for the intro anymore (because I was telling a story).

If you are interested in seeing the entire short speech with the corresponding pictures, click here.

Here are other, related topics I’ve written on:

Maybe you’ll say “Nuts to Notes” for a short speech, but also consider using notes sparingly, and thoughtfully, too (if you rely on your PowerPoint slides to cue you, make sure you have a back up plan in case of technical challenges!).

Speak with Confidence: You’re An Expert

Keep Calm ExpertHave you ever felt like a fraud?  An impostor?

Many years ago, when I was a new engineer, I felt that way.  I was assigned to work on a special project, part of a much larger effort. The other engineers all knew more than I did.  So did the guys in the shop.  Even the secretaries knew more about the paperwork.

And then, two weeks into the project, people started calling me the “expert.”  I was no expert and it bothered me that other people called me that.

I mentioned my discomfort with the “expert” label to a more seasoned coworker.

He laughed and said, “If you know more than someone else, you ARE an expert.”

It was an epiphany.  Expertise is relative. While I might not have felt like an expert, I was more expert in that particular area than anyone else.

When you are speaking, remember that on your topic (which may be related to your formal education, your self-studies or your experience), you can speak as an expert.  You just have to know more than your audience!

Now that you have that mindset, here are a few tips to speak with confidence in your area of expertise:

1. Stay current.  Update your knowledge base with current developments in your field.  Subscribe to a magazine in your field.  Read a book or blogs by other experts.  Jot down notes to review later.

 2.  Create and distribute information on your topic.  Here’s a sneaky idea—use a blog to write about things you want to have greater expertise in.  Learn.  Apply.  Blog about it.  That’s what I did with this blog.  I wrote about things I knew about, but also studied my topic and wrote about things I learned along the way.
Talk about your subject often.  Find like-minded people to discuss your subject with.  Professional associations can be good for this.  Talking about your subject casually will increase your facility with getting the material from your brain to your mouth.

 4.  Practice explaining it different ways.  When you are preparing a speech, try to think of multiple ways of explaining your concept.  Try them out.  Pick the one you think is best for the audience, but if you get that “I’m confused” look from your audience, you have an alternate explanation available.

 5.  Play 20 questions.  What are the top 20 questions people want answers to for your topic?  Ask people, if you  don’t know.  Practice answering.

 6.  Teach your subject.  If at all possible find a way to teach a class or workshop on your subject.  It will help you remember what it was like to not know as much as you now do.

 7.  Don’t Do a Data Dump.  Don’t feel that you have to tell the audience everything you know.  Tell them what they need to know to accomplish the objectives of your presentation.  Ruthlessly take out information that is extraneous to your point.  Doing so will leave more time for greater engagement with examples, stories, case studies, etc.  And, if you happen to forget a point, or end up with more time, then you have extra material.

Know your material for confidence (and credibility!).

It’s Not All About You: Focus on the Audience

Focus on the AudienceKaylee’s fear of public speaking was so great that she would get migraine headaches just contemplating giving a prepared speech.  Kaylee, a student in my homeschool speech class last year, managed to stumble through the impromptu speaking portion of class, and was able to offer oral evaluations of other students’ speeches. But,  because her fear of giving a prepared speech was so debilitating (it also aggravated another medical condition), I allowed her to send me videos of her speeches, recorded in the privacy of her bedroom.  She was charming.  She was witty.  She was poised.  When she was all alone.

Can you relate at all to Kaylee’s fear?

I’m guessing you don’t have it that bad!

One of the main contributors to the fear of public speaking is the fear of being judged, and focusing on the negative “what if’s.”

“What if I blank out?”

“What if I mess up?”

“What if they think I’m boring/stupid/ ___________ (fill in the blank with your concern)?

Well, what if you stopped focusing on yourself and started focusing on your audience?

“What if their lives are changed for the better?”

“What if I can give them hope?”

“What if I can get them to think in a new way?”

While I never had a debilitating fear of public speaking, I have experienced pre-speech jitters (couldn’t eat, needed to take a million trips to the restroom, etc.).  And, I remember exactly when I stopped experiencing the feelings of fear and dread prior to speaking.

It was the day that I realized it wasn’t about me.  It was all about the audience.

My message was my gift to them.  I was like the wrapping paper—I could be exciting and eloquent, and I could make my message enticing, but my presentation wasn’t about me, the wrapping paper.  It was all about how the audience experienced and could use the gift of my message.

Now, because I wanted to give them the best gift I could, I structured my content for maximum effect and I prepared and practiced.  But, I did it for them, not me.

The fear dialed way down and my excitement rose.  I was like a mom on Christmas morning, excited to see her children open the gifts she had so carefully selected.

What can you do to focus on the audience, and reduce that fear?

1. Consider your presentation a gift.

Be like the mom on Christmas morning.

2. Learn about your audience.  In order to give the perfect gift, you need to know what the recipient needs and wants. Ask the meeting planner to be specific on objectives (“What would make my presentation a home run?”).  Get audience demographics (age ranges, male/female ratios, job responsibilities, presentation style they like).  Arrange phone or email interviews with a few audience members, or at the very least talk to people before your presentation.  Ask them, “what are your biggest pains regarding _______ (your topic)?  What do you wish you knew?  What do you want to be different regarding __________?  Can you  tell me about a time when _________ (scenario related to your topic)? What do you want to learn from my presentation?”

3. Tailor your speech to the audience.

Don’t give every audience the same gift.  Make it special, just for them, even if you only change a few parts.  Take the information from the “learn about your audience” phase and USE IT in your speech.

4. Visualize and speak success.

Imagine positive outcomes and a positive audience reception of your message.  Successful athletes and speakers don’t focus on what can go wrong.  They visualize ideal execution.  Say to yourself, “I can’t wait to give them this gift!”   Win before you even open your mouth.

5. Pay attention to your audience and adjust on the fly.

Don’t go through your presentation in lock-step fashion, plowing point by point to the end, without considering your audience’s engagement.  If you did your presentation pre-work of learning about the audience and tailoring your presentation, they will likely be engaged.  But, watch their body language and facial expressions.  Change direction with an activity, a story, a brief discussion.  This means you have to be prepared with alternate paths and content.

6. Accept, and even embrace imperfection!  

While no one wants to blank out or stumble, realize that it’s not the end of the world.  In fact, you may endear yourself to your audience with your humanity.  Think about the times you have heard a speaker get off-track or forget what they were talking about, “Now, what was I talking about . . ?” and you, the audience got to help the speaker.  Did you think less of him or her, or did you actually feel more connected to the speaker?

Give your audience the gift of your presentation and remember, it’s not all about you.

Next week:  Know Your Material