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The Benefits of Practice Sessions

Practice! Practice by videotaping, audiotaping or role-playing with friends and colleagues. Be so comfortable with what you are going to say that you don't have to think about it. This frees your thoughts to be totally in tune with your [audience].

—Bill Bachrach, author and Certified Speaking Professional

Most presenters overprepare on content and underprepare on delivery. To counteract this natural tendency, we will explore five principles for effective rehearsals:

  1. Test early, test often.

  2. Simulate the setting and audience as closely as possible.

  3. Conduct dry runs.

  4. Test on mixed audiences.

  5. Look at the presentation from a fresh perspective.

1 Test Early, Test Often

Too often, presenters find that they have perfected a part of their presentation that shouldn't be in the presentation at all. Often, this comes as a result of overrehearsing component parts, without considering the presentation as a whole. A better strategy is to listen to the presentation from start to finish, even if it is in rough form. In fact, you may even want to tape record an early version. The purpose of the taping is to get an overview of the presentation to determine what should be in it as well as what should not. By listening to an early version, you can begin to hear the central theme and the questions that the presentation should be answering. Because even the first draft of a presentation is enough to make people anxious, Harvard University's Joan Bolker uses the idea of "the zero draft" to help people with writer's block. In her book, How to Write Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day, Bolker, like many other writers, says there is no such thing as a good writer; there are only good rewriters. Likewise, James Michener said, "I have never thought of myself as a good writer. Anyone who wants reassurance of that should read one of my first drafts. But I am one of the world's best rewriters." In fact, most experts agree that the better the document, the more likely it has been revised numerous times. It is the same with presentations. The better the presentation, the more times it has been practiced, and that means practicing early and often. However, the hardest practice session for many of us to get around to doing is the first practice session, and this is an all-too-common mistake. One of the best ways to get around this is to do "the zero practice session."

We developed the idea of "the zero practice session" from Joan Bolker's recommendation to take the anxiety out of writing the first draft of a written document. Joan calls this "the zero draft." The purpose of the zero draft is to get words on paper or a layout of your presentation. The intended audience for the zero draft is you. So get something—anything—down on paper. Give yourself something to edit. You are purposely working out and clarifying your own thinking about a particular topic. Once you have a better idea of what you want to say, you can then decide if the material suits your intended audience. In other words, you have to figure out the answers to your own questions first. Then, and only then, do you work at figuring out the answers to questions your audience will likely have. Many times your questions and the audience's questions will be the same. Sometimes not. However, we often can't answer an audience's questions until we answer our own questions first.

We have found that the concept of the zero practice session has taken a lot of the anxiety out of the preparation process. It has also helped us by giving permission to write and develop presentations in a manner that is more in tune with how presentations are naturally developed, and we have confidence it will do the same for you.

Another way to ensure that you practice early and benefit from early feedback is to enlist selected friends and colleagues to listen to and give you feedback on your zero practice session. In this case, you should tell your audience that this is as much of a brainstorming session as it is a feedback session. You need to tell your audience that you want their ideas as to what should and what should not be included in the presentation as well as any other ideas they have, regarding both content and delivery. Participants in our presentations find they quickly improve and do a much better job when they develop and practice their presentations in small groups. Why is this true? They can test early and they can test often. This immediate feedback gives the presenter an idea much earlier as to whether an idea will work or not. When we ask our participants to give us an idea in percentages as to how much more effective this is, the normal estimate is 50 to 90 percent. Based on their experience in class, the participants are sold on using the "test early and test often" technique in the future.

Testing early and often is a proven strategy, yet you may think it difficult to find a live audience to practice in front of. Not so. Master_Presenters know that there are numerous places when you can practice. For example, you can recruit a group of friends or family members, or even practice in front of the family pet or a tape-recorder. There are also organizations where you can find a willing and eager audience such as Toastmasters. There you not only have an audience to speak to, but the listeners will give you immediate feedback. This allows you to evaluate your presentation from your perspective as presenter, and to let the audience evaluate your presentation from their perspective as listeners.

2 Simulate the Setting and Audience as Closely as Possible

One of the reasons airplane simulators work so well is that they simulate actual flying conditions as closely as possible. Similarly, Master_Presenters should simulate the setting and the audience as closely as possible. For example, Brad saw Master_Presenter Patricia Fripp present a closing keynote on the last day of the Global Payroll Conference in San Antonio, Texas. Earlier that morning, Patricia had practiced her presentation in the empty room where she would give it later that day—you just can't simulate the setting any better than that. Of course, you won't always have the opportunity to practice in the same room in which you will give the final presentation, but if you can practice in a room of similar size and setup, your performance will be better as a result.

You may also want to consider practicing with an audience that will be as similar to your actual audience as possible. If you are presenting to professional engineers and you know several professional engineers, invite them to be your test audience. If you don't know people in the exact profession to which you will be presenting, find a practice audience that is as similar as possible to your target audience in terms of age, education, or interests.

3 Conduct Dry Runs

Dry runs are practice sessions and as such they can occur in a variety of settings. Dry runs will give you the time you need to make necessary corrections or to find and/or update any data, quotes, or statistics that you may be using in your presentation. Dry runs will also give you a sense of what is working and what is not working, and if there are any holes in your presentation. Also, after letting the outline sit for a while, you may be able to see that another way to organize your presentation makes more sense. Also, as discussed in the previous chapter, coming to the presentation fully prepared will help to alleviate much of the anxiety that plagues many presenters.

Dry runs also give your subconscious a chance to work on the presentation when you are consciously not thinking about it. For example, you may be going for a run, folding the laundry, or driving your children to their activities, when presto, right in the middle of not thinking about the presentation, you have a terrific idea about how to use a story, a prop, a metaphor, or an analogy that makes your presentation twice as good as it would have been without the insight. Because the subconscious doesn't work on a fixed schedule, if you leave too little time between the preparation and the delivery, it is much less likely that you will benefit from any of these important insights.

4 Test on Mixed Audiences

Different types of audiences will see and hear different things. For example, Brad had prepared a case study to be presented at a meeting of the Roundtable on the Economy and the Environment. The audience would be made up of members from government, the business sector, and environmental groups.

Brad: I found a perfect case of an asphalt company that was located in a small community. The plant either met or exceeded all of the current environmental standards. The problem was that when the wind blew under five miles per hour, particles landed on a nearby elementary school and the students and staff complained that their clothes picked up the odor. A number of students complained of headaches. The mayor promised to move the plant before the next municipal election, but it was not determined who would pay for the move. Lastly, the head of the town's industrial park had asked for a vote, and the board of directors had concurred that the asphalt plant would not be allowed into the "high tech" industrial park. It was a perfect case because it was current, on-going, and seemed to have no solution that was agreeable to everyone.

We had interviewed all of the constituents and made sure that we understood the case and all the proposed solutions. We painstakingly wrote up each party's instructions and made sure that we understood everyone's role as carefully as an FBI profiler and we developed a true scale map of the town and everything within the town limits and had verified with the town manager that our map was indeed accurate.

However, there was one more step and that step was to do a dress rehearsal. I invited a group of friends over for dinner and, after dinner, asked our guests to try the case study with the directions for role-playing as we had written.

I subsequently found out that my instructions, which were crystal clear to me and the people in the town whom I interviewed, were less clear to the people I had invited over to test the case.

The dress rehearsal saved me from asking the members of the Roundtable to try to resolve a case where the instructions were less clear than I had thought. The moral of the story is to do a dress rehearsal and find out if there are any problems with your information, exercises, case studies, etc., before, not after, you give the presentation.

5 Look at the Presentation From a Fresh Perspective

It is a common experience to spend so much time looking at the material from the same perspective that we can't see any other way to present the material.

Brad This is analogous to me losing my glasses. I know they are somewhere in the house, and I have searched high and low and can't find them. I then ask one of my children if they have seen my glasses and they find them almost immediately because they are approaching the subject from a fresh perspective.

If you have a neutral outside party look at your presentation, that person may be able to see things that you don't see. This is especially true if you are presenting to mixed audiences where some of the members are very familiar with the material and others only have a slight understanding of the material being presented. Your material has to be so masterful that it reaches audience members who are extrinsically on different levels.

You can maximize the value of your practice sessions by harvesting maximum salient feedback—our next topic.


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