Should I rehearse, and for how long? -Presentation Training

Yes, you should rehearse. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. From a presentation coach’s perspective, the following sentence is the dumbest in the English language:
“I don’t want to rehearse because I don’t want to seem canned; I want to seem spontaneous and fresh, so I had better wing it.”

It is true that if you try to memorize your speech or deliver your presentation the exact same way every time, you will set yourself up for failure (exceptions for any reader who is a trained Broadway actor). But rehearsing your speech should never be about memorizing words or movements.

If you don’t rehearse, you are throwing the rough draft of your presentation at your audience. And rough drafts are, well, rough. Here is a question I ask every one of my clients: “How often would you dictate a letter to an assistant, and then instruct your assistant to send it to all of your clients, your boss, and the media without editing it, spell-checking it, putting it on nice letterhead, or getting another set of eyes to review it?” [More…]

Clients usually chuckle and say, Never, and I imagine that is what you would say too. But that’s exactly what you are doing if you give a presentation without ever having rehearsed it. Most people are nervous before they give a presentation, yet they’re calm when they send out a letter to clients and prospects. What’s the difference? With a letter you have the opportunity to work through several drafts and get to a point of confidence that it is the best it can be and is devoid of major errors before you send it out. That’s why you aren’t nervous about sending letters.

The real reason that you—and most people—fear public speaking is that you fear the unknown. You don’t know if your content is interesting, you don’t know if you look or sound stupid, and you just don’t know what the audience thinks about you or what you’re saying. When you think about it, this makes perfect sense.

Let’s take another example from our everyday lives. If someone forced you to get dressed in the morning in the dark and didn’t let you look in the mirror once before leaving your home, would you be nervous about your appearance? Of course you would. You’d be worried that you missed shaving half of your face or that you put lip- stick on crooked. I’m sure that you look in the mirror many times before leaving in the morning. But it’s not as if you have to look at your own face all day long. You look in mirrors because you want an accurate sense of how the rest of the world sees you. We all have an “editing” system for putting on our public face and clothes. The result? When you show up at the office or in front of clients, you probably aren’t worried about your face or your hair or your clothing. You might not think you’re perfect (I hope you don’t), but at least you are confident that you have put your best face forward.

The same principle that applies to writing a letter or getting ready to leave your house in the morning can apply to presenting. There is no good reason not to go through drafts of your presentation until you really like it and feel totally comfortable with it. And I’m not talking about rewriting the words of your speech or reading it over and over again to yourself. A presentation is NOT the words you’ve created on paper or a computer screen. A presentation is you actually speaking. So, how do you rehearse?

The Secret
You must record your entire presentation on video and then watch it.
You absolutely must do this. It is the only way to find out if your presentation is any good. You have to watch yourself giving your speech. You can’t just stare at words written on paper. The presentation is you actually speaking, so you have to edit the rough draft of you actually speaking.

Over and over again, clients ask, “TJ, do I really have to watch myself? I hate watching myself on video!” Sorry, but you do. The same way you have to read a letter before you send it or look at yourself in the mirror at least once before you leave for work in the morning. Is it painful to watch yourself? Yes. But this is less painful than wasting the time of people you are speaking to because you were boring or hard to follow. So grab a video camera, a cell phone with video capture, a Webcam, or any other video device and record your speech. Then watch it.

This brings up a point that never ceases to amuse me. Countless how-to books on speaking and presenting use phrases like, “If a video camera is available, try to record your speech . . .”
If a video camera is available? What year are we in, 1910?

You don’t see books on resume writing that say, “If a computer is available and if you can find a spell- check program, you may wish to check the spelling in your resume before sending it out.” It is equally absurd in this day and age not to use a video recorder as you rehearse your presentation. For starters, your cell phone probably captures video and your computer likely has a Webcam that will capture your rehearsal, not to mention any digital still camera. Personally, I never go anywhere without a Flip Digital video recorder; it’s no larger than a cell phone, has one button, costs less than dinner for one in Manhattan, and plays back instantly.

And don’t try talking to a mirror. It’s a complete waste of time. It will take you a half hour to get past the first line. And instead of focusing on delivering ideas to an audience, you will focus on your big nose or some part of your face you don’t like. Plus, there will be nothing to analyze once you are done.

The video creates something tangible that allows you to critique your strengths and weaknesses. That’s important when learning most new skills. Imagine if, when you were in elementary school, you tried to learn how to write essays by dictating one to your English teacher and never reading the transcript. Now, imagine that when she graded your essay your teacher didn’t show you the words. Instead she just told you what you did well or poorly. Do you think you ever would have become a competent writer that way?

Of course not.

You have to see video of yourself speaking if you want to improve, and there is absolutely no excuse not to do so.
I will warn you, if you have never seen a video of yourself speaking, you will not likely enjoy watching one. Tough! Your audience has to watch you; shouldn’t you know what they are seeing and hearing?

If you are like most people, here is the response you’ll have after watching yourself: “Ugh, I hate my speech! I am so deadly dull it’s not funny. I never imagined I would sound so boring and monotone. I would fall asleep if I had to watch this speech.” Well, at least now you know how your audience will feel. The good news is that you still have time to fix this disaster of a speech. When I ask clients what they want to do to improve their presentations, the first response is usually, “Throw the whole thing in the trash can!” And sometimes that may be the best thing.

Practice alone is not enough—especially if you are practicing a long, boring, abstract presentation. I can’t tell you what to say, but I can tell you that if you hate your speech, there is an excellent chance your audience will too. So, come up with a new one. The key is to get rid of the bad, boring, abstract content from your speech and replace it with interesting examples, case studies, and success stories. (More about this later in the book.) But here’s the rub: The best way to get rid of stuff you don’t like is to focus on the parts of your presentation that you do like so you can do more of it.

Now, for the second part of the question—how long should you rehearse? You can’t just try this once and move on. You have to rehearse, record, and review your presentation again. Are you happy yet? If not, keep revising, rehearsing, recording, and reviewing until you are happy. Is this tedious? Sure. But you already do this with printed documents going out of your office. Why is your presentation less important than a printed document? Keep refining your speech and keep watching it until you reach a magical moment: when you can watch your own speech and actually love what you see, when you can watch the video and say: “Wow, s/he’s a great presenter. If I can do half as well in real life, I will be the best presenter there.” This might take you five hours or it might take you five days. Either way, your audience doesn’t care. They just want your best.

Here’s the payoff: When you are watching a video of yourself and you can clearly see that you look comfort- able and confident and that you are expressing your ideas in an interesting and memorable way, a funny thing hap- pens—you become a better presenter. That first feeling of confidence goes a long way.

Please, please, please, I beg of you: Record your presentation rehearsal and keep rehearsing until you love what you see. If you disregard everything else in this book but follow this one piece of advice, you will have unlocked most of the secret to giving foolproof presentations, because you’ll actually get a chance to see yourself the way your audience sees you!

FREE TJ TV! Want some extra strategies on maximizing your rehearsal time? Go to, register if you’re a first-time visitor, and enter the words REHEARSAL TIME in the TJ TV form.

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