Practise makes a great speaker

Practise makes a great speaker. It’s easy to do and easy to avoid. Here’s how to do it.

I worked with an amazing group of people at my Public Speaking Masterclass this week. The group was made up of Association leaders that want to grasp and make use of speaking opportunities rather than walk in the other direction.

I consider them remarkable people. They are giving up their time and energy to share their insights and experience with others in their industry. They’re doing this in their spare time and on top of the day job. As we worked together, I realised that this self-imposed duality can present a significant barrier for many speakers. How do you develop and improve your performance as a speaker whilst making sure that the day job doesn’t suffer?

One answer is to use the time between the moments where you perform to become better at performing. It’s possible to fall into the trap of believing that improvements can happen through the live act of speaking. But there are generally not enough of these opportunities. And it can be quite a dangerous, slow and somewhat soul-destroying way to learn. My suggestion for speakers looking to grow is, go easy on yourselves. There’s value in the time between engagements. It’s about how you make the most of it.

I work with my clients on the four Ps of successful speaking. These are Preparation, Practise, Performance and Personal Confidence. I’ve found that paying particular attention to Practise has positive knock-on effects on the other three.

Personally I find practise hard. But I’ve found that practise is the single biggest gift I can give myself when it comes to a speaking engagement. It enables a number of things:

It tells me whether I have the right amount of material, to be conveyed in the right way, in the time allowed.

I get used to feeling the words. By saying them enough times, I begin to own the words, they’re coming from me.

And that increased familiarity allows me to focus more on the meaning, feeling and emphasis I want to place on the words and on making and maintaining my connection with the audience.

That said, it’s still quite hard. I give myself good reasons not to practise. For example:

  • Time: “There’s not enough time to practise”
  • Hard work: “I don’t like it when I practise, it feels and sounds uncomfortable.”

Even now I agree with both of these. They are always lurking in the background ready to convince me. Maybe they are true for you. What’s the answer?

I have no easy answer but I have a couple of suggestions. I find changing how I think about these things to be useful. For example:

  • Make time: there is always time that can be made. I think of my audience, me and my idea. And I commit.
  • Work hard now: work now makes things easy later. I get any anxiety out of the way in private. Then I’m free to have fun when I speak.

In practical terms I find these seven guidelines serve me well when it comes to effective practise:

Plan it: decide when and where you’re going to practise.

When: start at least three weeks before the slides are due in.

Where: wherever is available. I’ve practised on planes, in empty bars.

How many times: at least three. Ideally somewhere between 5 and 10 run throughs. Full run throughs with slides.

As if you were speaking: make it real. If you’ve decided to speak at the lectern, create a lectern. If you’re free standing, move around.

At least once in front of an audience:ask someone you trust.: Present your session to them. Ask them to come up with questions, things they didn’t understand. Ask for feedback.

Time it: you want your talk to be crisp and powerful. Use your rehearsals to fine tune your talk. Look to finish under your allotted time. Then you can allow for audience laughter, pauses around key points and spontaneity. Make your finish line 90% of your actual time.

What about you? How will you practise? What will you change to allow practise to happen? Congratulations to all the speakers  who I worked with this week and good luck for what’s coming up. You’ll do yourselves proud!

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