I find myself presenting to an audience quite often. Sometimes it is a boardroom of executives, other times it is a theatre of thousands. I did 108 events last year and each one of them made me nervous for different reasons. Will I talk too fast? Will I try to make a joke that falls flat? Will the story that went down well in Denmark also work in Sweden? Am I being respectful enough of the country I am speaking in (and their level of technological maturity)? etc. etc…
One thing that I am not nervous of very often is the content I am presenting.
Because I decided a long time ago that if I was ever going to find myself in front of an audience of any size, I needed to make sure that I knew my stuff and I wouldn’t look like an idiot. I needed to practice. A LOT.
Some people have the luxury (and the confidence) of just walking onto stage and seeing what happens. I huge huge respect for people that can do that, especially if they pull it off. I have no idea how improv comedians do what they do. I am always in awe when I see a great comedian thinking on their feet in front of a live audience, with very little prep. Maybe the secret is that they do a LOT of prep but it is so well rehearsed that it looks natural and spontaneous.
A few execs I speak to refuse to practice because they have seen some their peers give terrible presentations because they practiced too much. They feel that in order to be credible and share authentic emotions on stage, they need to be spontaneous. “Too much practice makes for a formulaic presentation with very little passion” they argue.
I tried to be spontaneous a few times myself. Presenting with raw emotion and very little prep. It never turned out well. At best, I was passionate but without focus. At worse, I was like a schizophrenic storyteller, jumping all over the place and leaving the audience slightly bewildered.
This all started because I was lucky enough to run a very successful social media program for a large high street retailer a few years ago. It wasn’t long before event organisers wanted me to speak at their conference and share on stage what it was that we did and how we did it. Everybody likes a good success story that doesn’t come across like a sales pitch.
I bought a notebook and started to piece together the stories that I would tell, hoping that somebody would care or find them useful.
On the front page on my notebook I wrote,
“Whoever tells the best stories goes home with the most marbles”.
At first, my biggest fear was that I would seize up and totally forget what to say, so I started to seek advice from every decent presenter I watched. It’s amazing how willing people are to help you when you ask for their advice and support (something we don’t do often enough), but there was one piece of advice that I have never forgotten >>
“Don’t practice until you get it right, practice until you can’t get it wrong”.
Carmine Gallo wrote a brilliant book “Talk Like TED” a few years ago and he goes behind the scenes of some of the most popular TED talks. Gallo also wrote “The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs” a couple of years earlier and this idea of practice, practice, practice is a common thread that joins together all great speaker. In the TED book, Gallo explains that in some cases, TED speakers have a 10:1 practice-to-presenting ratio. That’s up to 10 hours of prep per minute that you present! For an 18 minute TED talk, some presenters have spent almost 200 hours preparing and practicing their talks!
Think about the last talk that you gave. How many times did you practice it in full? Once, twice…? And how many hours did you take preparing it?
It’s a great book well worth a read.
Chris Anderson also releases his own book tomorrow “The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking” which also promises to be an outstanding read >>
So why did I title this post, “Don’t Practice” if it seems practicing is a pretty good thing for most of us to do? Well, after I posting a picture of me practicing my presentation on my instagram with my “don’t practice until…” quote, my friend @MarkHeybo left a comment and shared with me one of my new favourite quotes.
“We don’t practice. Practice is for beginners. We rehearse”.
I love that.
So from now on, I shall be rehearsing my gigs and not practicing for them.
Things have come a long way since I wrote notes on index cards and the back of my hand! These days, my biggest fear is not forgetting what to say, it is wondering…
“What one thing will the audience take away from my talk, and still remember it next Monday when they’re in the office?”
But THAT, is an altogether much more complicated challenge than simply remembering your lines…