Ever wish you would have actually rehearsed that presentation you were supposed to give? Have you ever told yourself, “I’m ready” or “I am going to wing this presentation”? My advice to you: Don’t do it! Just don’t do it. Some preparation and a lot of rehearsal may very well make the difference between an average presentation and an excellent, inspiring presentation!

There is a lot of really good information out there on how to build a beautiful slide set and how to deliver a great presentation. There are a few well-known gurus out there, but in medicine, most people will refer to a brilliant pediatric surgeon named Ross Fisher. You can find his work related to his PCubed presentation design and delivery method here.

What doesn’t get discussed a lot, or at least enough in my opinion, is how to properly rehearse your presentation. If you’re like me, you have at one point or another found yourself prepping for a presentation and decided that you didn’t have enough time to rehearse. You probably told yourself, “I will be fine without practicing.” What you likely stumbled upon was the uncomfortable realization that “winging it” does not work so well. It makes you look unprepared and unpolished. In addition to the obvious, it can crush your self esteem when you deliver a talk you know you could have presented in a more polished way.

Why is rehearsal so important? 

The illusion of mastery occurs when we have “rehearsed” our talk in our mind over and over again, but we never took the time to rehearse it out loud or spend time mapping the content and words we will use. The illusion is powerful because it convinces our minds that we know the material AND can deliver it masterfully. Rehearsing your talk in your head doesn’t really work that well.

For a complete description of the rehearsal process and many more useful presentation pearls and pitfalls, please refer to the excellent book, Steal the Show, by Michael Port.

Here are 7 important steps to rehearsing a presentation: 

1. Table Reads 

Table reading refers to sitting down (I suppose you could be standing if you prefer) and actually reading your presentation out loud. In many cases this will be the 1st time you will run through the talk. During this process you will likely quickly discover material that doesn’t fit or, better yet, have a stroke of brilliance and realize something might need to be added. An initial table read allows you to hear what the presentation will sound like when spoken aloud and to explore the potential friction between the written script (or slides) and the spoken word. This step is a very valuable step in the rehearsal process. Skipping this step could lead to unhelpful material remaining in your slide set. Haven’t we all given a live presentation only to find useless material WHILE actually giving the talk? It is in this initial phase that you will turn your ideas and written language (if in fact you have any words on your slides) into the spoken word.

 

2. Content Mapping

Content mapping describes the process in which we literally “map” the words and transition points in our presentation. This is the vocal aspect of your presentation (the info on your slides that you are trying to convey verbally). Content mapping uses information from your table read to arrive at a map of the words and phrases you will use, as well as the pauses and transition points. This part of the rehearsal is going to take some time, but it is exactly this phase that is left out when many people rehearse. Let me say that again for emphasis: THIS is the part people leave out. Most people assume that their knowledge of the material combined with an initial table read and some good old improv will lead to a successful presentation. It won’t. Also keep in mind that content mapping is much more than just your vocal presentation. It’s a map of the pauses you will use and the way your words will combine with your transitions and points of emphasis. This includes your presentation’s rhythm, beats (pauses, points of emphasis, etc), and use of repetition. Take it from me. Don’t leave out the content mapping aspect of rehearsal.

 

3. Blocking

Blocking is taken from theater and film and has traditionally been used to refer to where actors should be on a stage and where they should move to for dramatic effect. Extrapolating this term from the arts, blocking usually refers to where speakers will stand on stage and where they will move during the presentation. This is another neglected aspect of rehearsal. It is understandable that you won’t always be able to practice at the presentation venue prior to your talk, especially if it’s in another city or country. One thing you can do is to get a picture of the venue beforehand and/or to show up a bit early (or stake the place out the day before). Speakers who don’t practice blocking are usually obvious to onlookers. They pace a lot and usually don’t look comfortable on stage. Blocking is essentially knowing and getting comfortable with the space you have on stage. After all, being a good presenter is a lot like being an actor. You have to know your environment.

 

4. Improvisation

Improv is a vital part of the rehearsal process in two ways. The first is in the rehearsal phase, and the second is in the actual delivery phase. Here we will stick to discussing the rehearsal. Improv is a wonderful tool for practicing your presentation in that you can be creative and see what works and doesn’t work during the first three phases of table reading, content mapping, and blocking. The improv phase allows you to put these first three steps all together. The best thing about using improv as a rehearsal tool is that is strengthens the relationship between the first three steps, and it is especially important for tightening up the blocking phase of your talk preparation.

 

5 & 6. Invited & Open Rehearsals

Invited and open rehearsals are an important component in gaining confidence when speaking to larger audiences. This is not a step that most of us think of when it comes to putting together a talk for a conference or even at our home institution. We may force our significant other, family member, or friend to sit and suffer through a trial run of our presentation, but most of us don’t get a room full of people to come sample our talk. If you are giving a large keynote presentation to hundreds or even thousands, though, you might want to consider invited or open rehearsals. Open rehearsals allows you to invite a few key folks to listen to your talk and provide feedback, and invited rehearsals allows for the same but on a larger scale. You can give audience members a feedback form that you can use for improving your talk. As an aside, another interesting way to get better at presenting is to work with a presentation coach who can critique your live presentation and/or a video of your talk.

 

7. Tech & Dress Rehearsals

Tech and dress rehearsal are the final stages of rehearsing. A lot this is good common sense. Make sure the technical aspects of your presentation work. This may require a run-through prior to your presentation. If you have props or other important elements to consider this is the time to know that everything is ready to go.  By this point you will already know the talk backwards and forwards (hopefully), bit in general it is a good idea to make sure certain elements of your talk are really fresh in your mind. Knowing your opening and closing REALLY WELL is very, very, very important. These are your two chances to make a splash and convince the audience that you know your material and that what you have to say is important.

 

Summary

Clearly, proper rehearsal of a presentation is vital to pulling off a brilliant performance, and a lot of people, quiet frankly ignore this phase of preparation. They ignore it completely. Trust me when I say that this is a big mistake. Don’t let the illusion of mastery pitfall turn your talk into an average, forgettable presentation. Take the extra steps and practice like professionals do. These seven steps work!

 

What are your favorite pearls and pitfalls for rehearsing a presentation? Leave a comment and let us know.