Public Speaking – How Much Rehearsal Is Too Much Rehearsal? How Much Is Too Little?
That’s what my marine drill instructor said when I went to his office and tried to remember the protocol that he’d just taught us when requesting to speak with him. I was at the Naval Science Institute, my version of boot camp for the Navy.
It was our first day being in the military. I needed to ask the DI a question.
What I was supposed to do and say was…
Stand next to his door with my right shoulder touching the outside door frame, reach around my left hand, slap the door frame two times and say.
“Sir, Candidate Allen requesting permission to speak to the gunnery sergeant, sir!”
I know it by heart now. But that first time, I just couldn’t get the right words out in the right order. After the 4th time of getting it wrong, and the rest of the candidates snickering at me from their rooms, the drill sergeant stepped past me and called everyone out of their rooms.
As punishment for laughing at me, the rest of the squad had to do push ups. I was very popular.
I had not rehearsed the required “permission to speak to the gunnery sergeant” speech that first time, but after a few days I got it down. So much so that 30 years later, I remember it exactly. That’s what repetition, and the threat of push ups, will do.
“Kelly, how many times do I need to rehearse before my presentation?”
It was Cindy, one of my coaching clients who’d asked the question.
Cindy is a busy executive running a nonprofit that’s understaffed and low on budget. She does most of the organization’s work herself and she’s got multiple priorities to manage.
Her speech was 5 days away and she’d finally finished tweaking her presentation. She asked the question after rehearsing the speech for the first time with me.
As we discussed how many times realistically she could rehearse over the next 5 days, I felt like she was trying to haggle with me like a garage sale shopper – trying to get me down to the lowest number possible.
Maybe what I should have done was go drill instructor on her!
In the end, she decided for herself how many times she planned to rehearse. But it does beg the question…
How Much Presentation Rehearsal Is Too Much? Or Too Little?
No one wants to spend more time rehearsing than they have to. We have other priorities. Plus rehearsing is boring and annoying and painful and feels a little foolish.
On the other hand, no one wants to lose face in the front of the room because we don’t know our material.
So what’s a poor speaker to do?!
Unfortunately there’s no magic formula – but here are some things to consider when you decide how much time and energy you’re going to invest in practicing your presentation.
How Important Is the Presentation?
Does a lot ride on having this presentation go well? Will having a bad delivery undermine your credibility with your audience? Will your lack of preparation send a signal to a prospective client that you won’t prepare well should they choose to work with you?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, error on the side of doing the most rehearsal you can before your presentation. Keep practicing until you’ve internalized your message (more on internalizing your message later).
On the other hand, if your audience has known you for years, if they love everything you do and would walk blindfolded over a floor littered with Leggo blocks for you, then being less prepared probably won’t hurt you. Rely on your notes and get your message across.
How Much Time Do You Realistically Have?
If you are short on time due to procrastination or life’s responsibilities, start out by practicing once in front of a video camera. Deliver your presentation in the same manner as you plan to on the day of your presentation, standing up, saying the words out loud, clicking through your slides. Pretend different parts of your room are different audience members and practice making “eye contact” with them.
Then watch back your video. Do you look better than you thought? Or do you need a lot of work? Video doesn’t lie. Pay attention to what you see, then decide if you need to find the time to rehearse some more.
If you have more time, rehearse in front of a friendly audience of colleagues, family and friends who are willing to give you feedback. If you’re an executive, make sure there are people in the group who willingly provide negative feedback even though you’re the boss. Don’t rely on subordinates to tell you the truth if they have no history of having tough conversations in the past. You’ll just hear praise and that won’t help you when you get in front of the “real” audience.
If you can’t find a friendly audience – or if their advice doesn’t seem good, hire a coach. Call me at 678-597-1108. Or google your local area for speech coaches. Or get remote coaching from Presentation Gym. Find a way to get the feedback you need.
If the feedback is great and you felt good about connecting with your message, then fabulous, you’re done. But if the feedback isn’t so good, incorporate the advice that you think will help and rehearse some more.
Have You Internalized Your Material?
“Sir, Candidate Allen request permission to speak to the gunnery sergeant, sir” was internalized. With enough repetition and familiarization, anything can be internalized.
If you’re speaking on a topic that you haven’t spoken on before, rehearse until you’ve internalized the message that you want to deliver. The idea here is that you want to be so comfortable with your topic that is someone high jacks the meeting and starts asking you a ton of questions, you would still be able to communicate because you know your message so well.
If you don’t feel that you feel your material on a visceral level, keep rehearsing.
Be in the Moment
When you’ve internalized your message, when you know what you want to say so well that you aren’t thrown by questions and misdirection, then you can truly be in the moment. Remember why you’re presenting. It’s not about the presentation itself – it’s about what the presentation will do for you and the audience you serve.
Rehearse enough so that you can accomplish the value you want to accomplish.
Then enjoy the ride.