Preparation is one of the keys to success. Take time to rehearse and be ready for any speaking engagement from a speech to a phone call.

When was the last time you rehearsed a speech?

I imagine a lot of head scratching out there. High school, maybe? Does anyone remember practicing for speech contests?

And then the next reaction is probably: “Who cares, nobody rehearses speeches. Formal speeches are old-fashioned. They turn off today’s audience. We’re extemporaneous nowadays. Spontaneous. We know our material and are ready to pivot in seconds based on the interests and attention of our audience.”

Yes, we’ve all come a long way since I watched my father rehearse his speeches using his dresser as a podium. We expect that presentations will be less formal, less scripted, and more interactive. And that’s all great, but it obscures just how much practice it takes to make that apparently off-the-cuff talk an effective vehicle for communication.

The Value of Rehearsal

First and foremost, we have to break through the idea that rehearsal is just for formal occasions.

You can – and should – practice not just formal presentations, but almost every other communication. Taking the time to actually walk through a meeting, a phone call, an interview, or a one-on-one discussion can be hugely valuable.

And I’m not just saying, have a look at your notes and check off what you’re going to highlight. You should actually say what you’re going to say, aloud and as if you have an audience.

When you actually rehearse something in real time, that’s when you learn how it will work. Is it too much content, or not enough? Does the content flow the way you hoped it would?

Rehearsing Your Speech

A colleague and I led a break-out session at Centric’s summer meeting this year. To get to our final product, we hosted multiple rehearsals for every stage of preparation.

  • We started with a deck and reviewed that, adding ideas and material to it.
  • We walked through the deck and decided to role-play it (in order to make it more interactive – “showing” instead of “telling”), so we wrote and reviewed the content for that.
  • Now we had a role-play. Adding a role-play to a breakout session adds a significant variable to your presentation. What if your volunteers don’t see the material the same way you do? So we drafted some colleagues to test the role play.
  • The test led to changes in the content as well as an approach to how to coach the volunteers who would be doing the role play. We decided that it would be too much to expect a volunteer to read through our scenario, especially while we were presenting. So, one of us would explain the scenario to the audience while the other took the volunteer out of the room to give them detailed information they needed for their role.
  • Finally, leading up to the event itself, we went through everything one more time: which of us would speak to which slides, what points would we make, and so on.

And you know what? We still had to adjust on the fly, adapting to the physical location and so on. But it was less stressful because we were only dealing with one or two unknowns. Our run-throughs had taken care of the other unknowns.

Rehearsing for Smaller Audiences

Of course, a breakout session might sound like the extreme example here. Of course, you should do all this preparation for something with a large audience and high expectations.

But it’s just as valuable for smaller audiences:

  • For a phone call or conference call, script your introduction. You can set the tone and direction for the call and make the call more productive.
  • For a job interview, come in with both questions and answers. What questions do you want to ask? And for those questions you’re most likely questions to get, what experiences are you going to draw on to tell about yourself?
  • For a meeting or deliverable review, plan how you’ll present your material to get the input you want.

Other Things to Consider

So how can you make the most of your preparation?

  • Actually say the words as if you have an audience there. It helps take the rough edges off, you know how it will sound, and it can build your confidence for the actual event. “Familiarize, don’t memorize.”
  • Walk through the entire event, not just the speaking parts. Visualize what’s going to happen and set your expectations for it. Think about what tone you want, how interactive you want the session to be, and so on.
  • Use your practice to build and revise your agenda (or your deck, your list of questions). Analyze how the meeting flowed, how you did against your allotted time, and make adjustments.
  • It’s not just the speech, it’s also the stage directions. Where’s the furniture? Are you standing or sitting? Where are you when you present? If it’s a smaller meeting, what material are you handing out? If you’re working with someone, who covers what?

Without our pre-work, I can imagine how our breakout would have gone. The role-play would have been a disaster, as the participants wouldn’t have had time to review the material and we wouldn’t have spent the time to explain to the audience what was going on.

Also, the presentation would have ended more with a whimper than a bang, as we wouldn’t have pared redundant slides from the ending and I would have been left trying to extract input from an audience that had already contributed everything it had to the subject.

No matter the objective, the setting, or the size of the audience, some time spent ahead of time can go far to make the event more productive.