How much you practice your presentation before the big day is a matter of personal preference. We have probably all heard of the phrase ‘over practiced’ but this depends on you as a person. Here are a few thoughts on how to get the most from preparation and practice.
1 Create a style for the presentation and agree with yourself what the underlying theme is that you want to deliver both in terms of the presentation and you as a person. For example, the presentation may convey some deep analysis and facts and your personal style may be one of ‘trust me I understand what this means and what it doesn’t mean’. The presentation may show targets and objectives and your personal style may be upbeat and motivational. They don’t have to be different or conflicting and your slides and personal style maybe be ‘chatty and engaging’ or ‘serious and telling’. Knowing your audience and how they may receive these styles is essential.
2 Avoid making too many changes to your slides as you practice. It is very easy to start to make major structural changes or tinkering with words and phrases rather than practicing. Avoid making any changes unless they help with communicating the messages and you really think it will make a difference on the day. Practicing is more about delivering the material you have than creating new material.
3 Most of the audience has not heard the material before so some of the definitions, three letter acronyms and concepts will be new. You may have to explain them as you go and this takes time so think about whether you want to do this a little up front or use the words on slide to inform the audience rather than adding the explanation into your main narrative.
4 When you practice try to get as close as you can to the environment that you are likely to be in on the day. If you are presenting hard copies around a table then sit down to practice. If you will be in business or casual clothes wear these during the practice so that you know what you will feel like. If you will be standing at a lectern in a large hall then practice behind a chair in the largest room you can find. Better still is to practice at the venue itself. If you are using supporting communication tools such as a flip chart or a video make sure you are familiar with how this will work on the day.
5 Time yourself, but don’t cheat and tell yourself it will be ok on the day. We have all said that, but trying to be a bit slower or faster is very hard to achieve. I have found that you need to take into account three differences between the time it takes to deliver the practice run and the time that you will take on the day.
First, the time available for your presentation may be different (usually less) than the time that you believe you have allotted to you. This can be because the last speaker overran, someone needs a break before you need to start, the slide/packs need to be made ready, microphones changed or you receive a lengthy introduction. In each case this time is usually subtracted from the time that you have available so make some allowance.
Second, you will deliver it differently on the day and it’s best to know what your weaknesses are. Do you speak faster as the adrenaline starts to circulate? Hesitate and lose your flow requiring you to re-check your notes and pause a little? Go off on a tangent adding in new facts and anecdotes that were never part of your narrative? Or, miss out huge chunks of the storyline, your opening remarks or your thank you at the end? Which ever of the above tends to be your weakness, acknowledge it, try to use your practice sessions to improve your performance and make allowances with the time you have available.
Third, questions. It is always difficult to know what will happen on the day. Will you be interrupted as you start your first sentence or will you be able to leave time at the end for questions. Try and find out before how questions will be handled and if no one knows see if you can steer the format before or on the day. Once again telling people how you will handle questions takes time so include your instructions to your audience in your practice runs.
You must use your practice time to ensure you have enough time to make your presentation. There is nothing worse for confidence than to know that you have too much material and not enough time. Finishing early is not a weakness it will often be appreciated by the organisers, your audience and you. If there is meant to be time at the end for questions make sure there is and if you make your presentation compelling and thought provoking questions will come (or plant a couple!). What’s more if the audience feel that they want to hear more they will contact you afterwards and ask for more – no one contacts you afterwards to ask for less, they just walk off a bit annoyed and frustrated at being a prisoner.
6 Tell your practice partners what feedback you want. To start with it is likely that your practice partners will not be reflective of your audience. Ask yourself before you practice with them what you want from them.
Are you looking for just a confidence boost? – Be honest with yourself. ‘Oh yes Richard your slides are brilliant and the audience can’t fail to love your orange tie’ maybe enough for you but your practice partners may not be so eager to give you the feedback you are looking for.
Do you want a critique or review of your storyline and narrative? Your practice partners may know more or less about the subject than your audience. Ask them to put themselves in the shoes of your audience rather than enter a competition about who knows more more about the subject matter.
Feedback on your delivery and presentation style? They will have their own style and may not know the context of your presentation, explain this first. Common feedback includes things like – there is too much on the slides. Ask whether the partners understood the slide and supporting narrative and whether everything was communicated successfully.
Before you start your practice with your partners, tell them what you want from them . How do I come across? – happy, serious, upbeat, etc. Have you noticed any contradictions in the slides and what I say? Are there any errors in the slides such as capitals in the wrong place, spelling mistakes, punctuation errors, etc. It will be very difficult for one person to look at all these things so ask each partner to focus on one aspect of your presentation. You can swap them round if you do more than one practice run.
Last, it is usually best to do any practice with partners well before your final presentation. Receiving last minute critical feedback is rarely helpful.
7 Use the practice time to learn more about your presentation subject and ensure you are up to date with the latest news. Read around the subject and see who is also talking about the same material. Collect a few snippets that bring your presentation up to date from your work environment, TV, radio newspapers, LinkedIn, etc. Leave room to add a few snippets in at the last moment to add a freshness to your presentation.
8 Create examples and analogies that help communicate your materials. These are great for the back-pocket as well as forming part of your communication tools and materials for question time. Test the examples and analogies for robustness and be honest with yourself if they don’t work. Understanding the boundaries of your materials and arguments is a strength not a weakness. (Try to avoid common analogies such as football and riding a bicycle unless you can put a different spin on things. But do focus on analogies that you personally know something about).
Overall make sure you use your practice time to improve your presentation and build confidence by following the tips above. You are looking to gain ‘Third Phase Possession’ of your presentation materials, arguments and communication tools.
‘First Phase Possession’ – I know what to say, can pronounce and communicate the subject matter and I know what it means. I can deliver it on time and with confidence. I can answer any questions about the materials I have presented. (Newscaster)
‘Second Phase Possession’ – I understand the subject matter in depth and can talk around the subject. I also know the strengths and weaknesses of my argument and the supporting materials that are not part of my presentation. I have tailored my presentation to the particular needs of my audience and I know what areas to emphasise during the delivery and question time. I can answer any questions about the materials I have presented as well as supporting materials not in my presentation. (Journalist)
‘Third Phase Possession’ – I know this stuff inside out. I can break down the arguments and build them up into different models. I am aware of the ‘exceptions that prove the rule’ with the strengths and weaknesses of the underlying assumptions. I can evolve and build on my presentation materials to take them to new levels of insight as well as summarise the materials into just a few statements. I can subtly change my delivery, messages and materials, if necessary, by observing the audience feedback and mood within the room. I am able to answer any question in the field of my presentation and easily take it to a new level of refinement brining in new assumptions and arguments. On the day I can build and draw on new arguments, deliver and direct new examples and create analogies to explain and communicate my presentation materials. (Guru Status)