When people say, "You need to practice your presentation beforehand," exactly what you should be doing to best prepare yourself may not be so obvious. Here are a few ideas to fill in the blanks:
Before You Start
If you're going to have elephants dancing across the stage, you'll certainly want to practice with them. But even if you're only going to be sitting down with one person, there are certain basics that apply:
1. Know your outline cold. Don't rely on an agenda slide as your guide to what's coming.
2. Know exactly how you're going to start it and how you'd like to end it. Any waffling at the beginning or end could sink your chances very quickly.
3. Be clear about your transitions. This applies to transitions between slides and topics. Know exactly how you're going to get into each transition and how you're going to progress out of them.
4. Everything else. There are lots of other things requiring your attention (what the venue's like, whether you have back-ups or alternative media, etc.), but a. you probably already know them; and b. there are whole chapters in presentation books covering these lists. What we'll cover here is how to prep for the presentation itself, which few people delve into.
Replicating the Space
The key to effective practice or rehearsal is to make it as much like the final presentation as possible. That doesn't mean you have to rent a conference hall to practice your keynote speech, but you should stand and move around (even if it's just in your hotel room) as though you were in a huge ballroom.
If you're presenting to a smaller audience—in a boardroom, training room, or even just one-on-one—then you should definitely try to replicate those conditions. Practicing in similar types of spaces will help you more quickly adjust to the limitations the presentation environment might impose.
This even applies if you're preparing to be interviewed by the press or getting ready to ask your boss for a raise. Thinking through the conversation, practicing your answers and body language, can be invaluable.
In theatre, there is always a specific rehearsal a few days before a show opens called a "technical rehearsal." The purpose is to make sure all the transitions between scenes work properly, timings are correct, things look the way they're supposed to look, and ultimately, everything is running as smoothly as possible.
You should include a technical rehearsal in your preparations, as well. Presumably you've already worked out equipment matters, so the focus of this run-through becomes the timing and execution of your transitions. Here's how you do it:
1. Practice how you'll get started. Are you being called to the stage? Introduced from your seat at the conference table? Sitting down to talk across a desk? It may sound stupid or useless to practice something as simple as this, but people start judging you before you start your actual pitch. This is not a moment to be fumbling around.
As part of this step, go into the first 30 to 60 seconds of your presentation, just to get yourself started. If some part of this step didn't go completely smoothly, repeat it until it does.
2. Practice your transitions. This step goes from the final minute or so of one section through to the first minute of the next section. Practice how you're going to get into your transition, how you're going to handle the it, and how you're going to move on from there.
Don't practice your entire presentation right now—just go through the moments up to and through your transitions. You want those to be smooth (and make sense) before you do a full rehearsal.
3. Practice your closing. This sounds obvious, but in many cases, this important moment ends up with a weak "Any questions?" Presuming you've got that closing nailed, you just need to take a few moments to walk through how you'll finish, where you'll go, and so on. You don't want to suddenly look lost after you've just wowed them.
In the second installment of this column, we'll tackle
movement, body language, and the full run-through in more detail.
John Windsor is president of target="blank">Creating Thunder, a Boulder, CO-based communications training and consulting company and the author of YouBlog. He has held executive positions in marketing, sales, and business development and has worked with companies including American Express, Reuters, Staples, and Knight-Ridder.