“Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.”
From Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers: The Story of Success‟
The title of this article might seem like stating the obvious, but the fact is it does take practice to practise. As the quote by best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell suggests, it is the doing of something over and over again that hones our skills to the point of excellence.
All habits take a while to really embed, so we need to be patient with ourselves. Most of us won’t remember just how long it took to form the twice daily teeth-brushing habit – probably by constant nagging for months by one or both parents!
Yet it’s crucial to develop new, positive habits and practises as well as discard old, outmoded ones.
This applies to many aspects of our lives, such as looking after ourselves by taking regular exercise and having a well-balanced diet. International athletes take these practices to a whole other level, but let’s turn our attention to the practice of preparing and rehearsing for a key presentation (I include speeches and pitches in this general term).
How much time do you usually devote to this? Be honest! Several people I’ve spoken to recently confess that they spend hardly any time practising for a pitch; to the extent that some rehearse in the cab on the way to the client’s offices. Not the best way to maximise your chance of winning the business.
Often people bemoan the shortage of time to prepare and rehearse for pitches or presentations, yet most of us will say we want to win that piece of business. Even if it’s simply for a presentation at an event, it could be an important marketing or PR exercise. Especially if the event is a high-profile and well-attended one filled with people you’d be happy to have as clients.
So why on earth leave the success of your talk to chance?
To be fair, some people need little or no preparation. This could be because they have been speaking in public for many years and thousands of hours. Or because they know their subject inside out and prefer to be spontaneous when talking about it. Conversely, there are very knowledgeable people who give terrible presentations due to debilitating nerves.
The vast majority of presentations and speeches that I witness in the UK, though, are just dull. Fundamental errors include: too much information on the slides; poorly structured and unbalanced content; bland delivery that includes a monotonous, mumbling voice, accompanied by slouching and almost no engagement with the audience.
Of course, I’m going to recommend working with a coach on a key presentation or pitch. That being said, you can improve hugely with good preparation and a decent amount of rehearsal time. Once you start to take the time to perfect and practise your talk, ironing out glitches as you go, you’ll find that – like brushing your teeth – the habit will form.
Ten suggestions to help form this positive habit
Find some peace and quiet for half an hour or more. What are three key points you want the audience to remember? Write these down.
Once you have these points, flesh them out, making sure your content is balanced. Following Aristotle’s three appeals: your credentials and credibility are important (ethos) along with any data and knowledge you are imparting (logos). However, don’t forget to inject – and appeal to – your audience’s emotions through your choice of words and delivery (pathos).
Include examples to illustrate and strengthen your points: quotes from experts, anecdotes or short personal stories (about you or someone else) all reinforce the points you make, enabling your audience to remember them. Think about how you are going to deliver your presentation and to whom. Ask yourself: does your style and content will fit well with your audience? What do you want them to do, think, feel?
Practise your delivery on your own (without a mirror), or in front of a trusted colleague or friend. Record it on audio. Listen to it a few times; make notes and revisions where you know it clearly needs work.
If you hear too many disfluencies: “umms/errs‟ or fillers such as “like‟, “obviously” or “at the end of the day‟, rehearse until you are more confident with your content and these are substantially reduced.
Also pay attention to your eye contact, facial expressions and hand gestures. Relax. Smile occasionally! Along with pacing, pausing and modulating your voice, this will help to engage your audience.
We often overuse volume for emphasis (the “volume punch”) rather than a change in pitch (modulation). To hear the difference, try practising your talk as if it’s a children’s story, or listen to a children’s audio book – or better still – both.
Make diary entries to review your talk daily or weekly. Spend at least 15 minutes daily if the event is happening that week; 30 minutes weekly if it’s happening several weeks or months hence.
I‟ll leave the last words with Aristotle:
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”