How to Practice for a Big Presentation

Earlier this year I was given a golden opportunity. To deliver a Keynote presentation to kick off a European event for a large multi-country software company. There were 500 people in the audience. It was a big stage and I had 40 minutes to fill. I was the first one up. It was quite scary and beyond my comfort zone, but I still said yes. Despite my trepidation It all went well. The key for me was practice. Here’s what I learnt.

1 Write out a script

Don’t just write out the key words or the bullet points. Write it out in its entirety, as if you were saying it out loud. Use words / phrases that you’re familiar with, so that it sounds authentically you. Tell a story, paying particular attention to the beginnings and endings. Make it emotional.

2 Synchronize the script with the slides

Ensure your slides support your narrative. Keep the slides visual – remember the golden rules. I’m a fan of using lots of slides as it keeps everything pacey and engaging. Having slides linked to the narrative helps you memorise the script more easily too.

3 Learn the script

A presentation is a performance. You don’t want to rely on improvising or hoping that the right words will come to you at the right time. The risk is that you’ll ramble, use lots of ‘umms’ and ‘errs’ or else simply clam up. There are no short cuts. You’ve got to put the hours in. If you can’t recite it from memory, keep working on it. I simply broke it down into the sections. Learn the opening. Then the next five minutes. Then the next. Finally the end. Learn it over a long period of time - not in one single setting. Carry your script with you. Every time you have some spare time - waiting for a train, at an airport, spend time learning it. Play it back in your head. Slowly, but surely, you’ll get there.

4 Practice Out Loud

Do this on your own initially. Listen to how you sound when you speak. Does it all flow? Does it sound natural? Edit, the script, then re-edit it. If you stumble over certain words, remove them. Practice sitting down. Practice standing up. Some people like to record their voice. Listen to yourself, how do you sound? What can you improve?

5 Time it

It’s hard to estimate how long a speech will last, so make sure you’ve set your stopwatch. Then make sure you edit further, to allow for further over runs. Go under time, rather than over time. To help get it right, try speeding up, then try slowing down. Get a sense of when you should be half way through or when you’re nearing the end.

6 Try it out on a friendly audience

When you feel it’s in good shape, try it out on someone and ask for friendly, constructive feedback. Imagine it’s the real event. Do it as if you were on stage. Make sure you listen and take on board what’s been said. Pay attention to your body language and get feedback on that too.

7 Practice wearing your presentation outfit

The clothes you wear need to make you look good and feel comfortable. It’s like a dress rehearsal. It’ll give you confidence and they’ll feel familiar when you get on stage. You’ll also get the opportunity to make some adjustments if you decide to change your mind or feel the clothes don’t work for you.

8 Practice in the venue

Get to the venue early – ideally, the day before. Get a feel for the size of the venue. Practice walking onto the stage. Decide where to stand, check out the lighting. Test out the equipment, run through your slides. So when you finally get on stage it’ll feel like a familiar setting

So to summarise

If you got to deliver a big presentation, don’t short circuit the practice. No matter how experienced you are. Allow enough time for it. Learn it as if you were an actor performing on stage. Use language you’re familiar with. Try to avoid reading from a script or using speaker notes. You won’t sound natural and it will give you a get out clause when you don’t feel like practicing.

You cannot over-practice. The better you know it, the more confident and relaxed you’ll be. Make sure you give yourself the opportunity to perform at your best.