Archive for the ‘Preparation & Practice’ Category

I’m always hearing individuals say that they speak best when they don’t prepare or practice.

My experience tells me this isn’t true most of the time, but there are some people who really can deliver notably good talks with no apparent preparation.

The key word here is “apparent.”  They, in fact, do prepare and practice, but not for a specific speaking occasion.

These people prepare and practice by constantly talking about their ideas.  They talk about them in group meetings, telephone conversations, hallway conversations—anywhere they can get a hearing.  So, when they are asked to speak formally, they have, in fact, put in quite a bit of rehearsal time.  They just don’t realize it.

This informal, practice-anytime-anywhere approach is available to anyone.

It could just be that your key to more spontaneous eloquence is having more conversations about your ideas when you’re not scheduled to formally present them.

Whenever confidence is identified as a public speaking problem it is usually in terms of too little confidence.  The typical discussion is about the fear of public speaking and how to overcome it.

Something needs to be said about the seldom recognized problem of too much confidence.

People who speak regularly as subject matter experts can get to a point where they no longer believe they need to prepare extensively or practice.  Early in their careers they spent hours crafting a message and practicing its delivery.  Now they rely on no more than a general idea of what they want to talk about and a few notes.   After all, they are experienced speakers with extensive knowledge of the topic.

Their over-confidence has them believing they can easily deliver a good message with a minimum of preparation and no practice.

Listen to one of these speakers and you will often hear a talk that contains some good material, but it doesn’t come together to form a single, coherent message.  There is a free-association nature to the piece that can—in the worst cases–include so many tangents that the overall listening experience is maddening.

No matter how well you know your stuff, a good speech or presentation is going to take time to prepare and is going to require some practice.  Confidence is not a license to wing it.  Your audience deserves better—particularly from a subject matter expert.

With some large company conferences a notice will go out demanding that all the speakers turn in their final presentation slides in advance of the event.

This demand annoys executives who feel it unnecessarily cuts off the time they need to prepare their message.  They protest that administrative concerns are preventing them from making their presentation as good as it should be.

Oddly enough, this turn-in-your-slides requirement actually leads to some people doing a better job of speaking than they otherwise would.

How is this possible?

It’s possible because these speakers are forced to transition from preparation to practice—while there is still time to practice.

There is a point at which any additional time spent in preparation, at the expense of practice, is not good.  At this point, an hour of practice is worth more than two hours of fussing with slide content.  Maybe a few more slide changes would lead to A-plus content, but an A-minus presentation, well practiced, would be better.

When you start preparing a presentation, decide when you will need to stop preparing and start practicing.  Then, hold yourself to that deadline.  Do not let prep work eat into practice time!  It’s not worth it.

When Aristotle wrote about the primary types of persuasion he included “ethos”—convincing by character of the speaker.  In other words, the audience is persuaded, at least in part, because of who is delivering the message.  At a leadership conference I attended earlier this year, I witnessed both the power of ethos and the potential downside of depending too much on it.

One of the speakers was a well-known leader and best-selling author.  As you might expect, the meeting planners scheduled him for the last afternoon.  They wanted the anticipation of his appearance to build—and it did.  When he took to the stage, he couldn’t start speaking until a long period of enthusiastic applause died down.

As his talk proceeded, it became increasingly clear that he was less prepared than most of the other speakers.  It sounded a lot like he was winging it, stringing together material he had talked about before.  The result was what I considered to be an uninspiring, mediocre performance.  And yet, because of who he was, he received a standing ovation.  He didn’t deserve it.

I couldn’t help but think afterward that this gentleman was resting on his reputation.  He was counting too much on ethos for his persuasiveness.   He was not putting in the hard work needed to craft a message which includes supportive facts (logos) and thoughtful appeals to audience emotions (pathos).

I’ve seen this same phenomenon in the business world.  Leaders who have proven themselves and risen high in the ranks feel confident that their status and reputation alone will carry the day.  The result is a forgettable speaking performance that I suspect they would not have been satisfied with earlier in their career.

I once heard that ethos is being strengthened or weakened every day in a person’s career.  Taking it for granted when you speak certainly is not strengthening it.

It’s so basic.

Do a sound check before you speak to make sure the microphone is working right and the sound level is appropriate.

Yet, a few days ago my mind was so much on the content of my talk that I didn’t think to insist on a check.  When the gentleman running the sound board didn’t say anything, I clipped on the microphone and went back to my notes.  

Sure enough, the sound system served up immediate problems.  First there was feedback.  Then, efforts to correct the feedback took the volume too low.  Bringing the volume back up reignited the feedback.    

Eventually, the sound guy found the settings he wanted, but the sound quality was never quite right.  I was told later that the problem was a combination of where I had clipped the microphone on my shirt and where the podium had been located relative to the main speakers.  Both these things could have been easily corrected in advance.

Whatever value came from that last-minute review of my notes, it was not worth skipping the sound check.  

Testing 1—2—3  Testing 1—2—3

I’ve been asked to give a talk this weekend and as I started working on it I caught myself organizing too quickly.  With limited time to prepare, I was eager to get an outline nailed down.  No time to waste!

As reassuring as an outline can be, rushing to create one short-circuits creativity.  Engaging and creative content requires some brainstorming.  I needed to give myself the freedom to scribble random ideas on paper without any concern for how I might use them. 

This was not wasted time.  It generated pages of possible material with several options I had not thought of initially.  Now I can begin work on an outline.

I’ll get done on time with a better message.

In my last post I talked about avoiding a rushed delivery that takes away from the confident image you want to project.  I urged you to “own” the time you have been given to speak.

I need to follow up that advice with a warning about something that can cause even the most confident speaker to sound anxiously rushed.  That thing is too much material.

One of the most common mistakes speakers make is going to the front of the room with too much to cover.  Ironically, they do it to boost their confidence (“I have more than enough.”), but it creates pressure—self-imposed pressure.  As time starts to run down their confident-sounding pace gives way to an anxious-sounding rush to “get it all in.”

Practice your piece out loud.  See how long it actually takes to deliver it.  Then trim it back to something you can finish in less time than you have been given to speak.   You will be able to comfortably cover your points and “own the time” from start to finish.

Over the years I have asked many people what their biggest complaint is with the typical presentation or speech.  By a wide margin, the most often cited complaint is “Too long!”

Speakers chronically speak past their allotted time.  They do it even when they promise not to.

This problem is so common that the speaker who does not run long stands out.  You can almost guarantee he or she will be complimented afterward for the on-time finish.

The primary reason for over-long presentations and speeches is the lack of out-loud practice with a clock.  If you only think about your talk, it will seem significantly shorter than it really is.  That’s because your mind will do a kind of data compression without you realizing it.  It’s only when you actually try to say the piece, out loud, that its real length reveals itself.  Often this real length will be fifty percent more than you expected.

Practice out loud and ruthlessly edit.  Get your talk down to where you can comfortably say it out loud in less time than the meeting coordinator promised you.  The result will be an on-time finish and a happy audience.

Last week I talked about the tendency speakers have to give inadequate attention to how they will end.  This leads to weak conclusions and poor last impressions.

This weekend, I found myself falling victim to a closely related tendency: the tendency to practice the last third of a presentation less than the first two-thirds.

I set aside Friday afternoon to practice a talk I had to give Saturday afternoon.  As I practiced, I kept stopping and backing up every time a segment didn’t flow smoothly.  I would re-tool it and then start again earlier in the message.  It’s the speech practice equivalent of backing up to get a running start at something new.

I’m sure you can envision what this led to.  The front end of my talk was getting more practice repetitions than the back end.  I was setting myself up to become less smooth the further I went into my talk.

Fortunately, I caught myself and made it a point to practice the last third without backing up to an earlier point.  It took some willpower, but it paid off with a more evenly rehearsed piece.

Fully prepare a strong ending.  Practice the last third as much as the first two-thirds.  The result will be sustained quality all the way to the last word.


Steele Presentation Coaching