Public Speaking Rehearsal

Rehearsal is a practice more honored in the breach than the occurrence, and it should be the other way around.

People wiggle out of rehearsal in a variety of ways. They say, “I’ll just wing it.” That’s usually fatal, and ends up turning a modern virtue — the casual approach — into a sin — verbal chaos of one kind or another. Or they say, “I don’t want it to get stale,” as if that were a serious problem. It’s far more likely that it will never come to life to begin with, let alone get old. Or they say, “I’ve run it through in my head,” as if that were enough. The problem is that every communication is two conversations, a verbal one and a non-verbal one. That second conversation is just as important as the first one — in some ways more important — and you can’t, by definition, run that through in your head. You can’t.

So you need to rehearse. How do you do it? As often as possible, but here are the basics.

1. Rehearse The Content

The first rehearsal is for the content. The first time, just try to get the words out. Don’t worry about what actors call ‘blocking’ — how you might move around. Just get the words out. Find out if anything needs to be changed or fixed. See how long it takes, and how well the transitions work. Test it.

2. The Logical Structure Rehearsal

Audiences today expect speakers to do more than simply read from a script or PowerPoint slide deck. They expect a more intimate conversation.

As a result, it pays for the speaker to know the basic logical flow of the speech — not the exact words, but the main points, in order. Ideally, that’s what a speaker has in his or her head when he/she bounds up on stage and begins to chat with the audience.

So rehearse that. Get the logic of the speech down in a bulleted outline, and practice that. Rehearse just running through that outline, as if it were a very brief explanation. Then, embellish it by adding your supporting facts, your stories, and so on. Work your way up to the whole speech.

The result will be a clearer sense of how the speech needs to flow for the comprehension of the audience. And, rather than reading the speech or slavishly following a dense series of PowerPoint slides, you can flexibly and confidently work through the outline, knowing where you’re going and where you’re taking the audience.

The Babble Exercise

One really useful exercise for improving your non-verbal performance is the babble exercise. How does this work? You stand up in front of one or two very close colleagues or friends, and give the speech without using recognizable words. Instead, babble, while trying to convey as much of the speech as you can with your facial expressions and gestures.

What you see people doing, as they struggle to get the meaning across, is upping the ante enormously on their gestures. And, because most people don’t gesture enough, or animate their face enough, the result is a more charismatic, interesting speaker and speech.

(Strangely, some people have a hard time babbling. If you can’t make up babble words on the spot, then just say “blah blah blah.”)

Now, obviously you have to use the exercise to find the ‘top’ of your game, and then throttle back in the actual delivery of the presentation. But, if your friends or colleagues will give you candid feedback, they will tell you that you’re not as over the top as you think.

Many speakers play it safe when they’re speaking, and they rein in their facial expressions and gestures in order not to appear less than wholly dignified. But the result is more often boredom than dignity.

3. Rehearse The Non-verbal Conversation

The third rehearsal is for the non-verbal ‘conversation’. Now that you’ve got your content stable, work on finding out how you’re going to stand, to move, and where during the speech you need to do what. Don’t worry so much about getting the words perfect, but do feel the speech, as a dynamic production of your body. Ideally, you’ll have someone tape you, so you can see how you’re doing.

Many people don’t think they need to walk through a speech physically — I’ll just run through the points in my head — but they do. I can always tell someone who hasn’t rehearsed, because sooner or later you’ll catch that deer-in-the-headlights look as the speaker thinks to himself, whoah, I didn’t see that coming.

Give the babble exercise a try. Then retain something of the increased energy when you actually speak, and you will be a more charismatic speaker.

4. Rehearse The Emotions

The fourth rehearsal is for the emotional journey. A good speech takes its audience on an emotional as well as an intellectual journey. So on this rehearsal, go over the top finding places to express all the emotions of the speech. You should map them out in your mind just as you map out the movement. Where do you start? Where do you finish? How do you get from one to the other? Go crazy, because when you give the actual speech, you’ll retain some of the life of this rehearsal. Most people are too bland, emotionally speaking, because they’re afraid of showing their emotions when they speak. Unfortunately, that just makes them boring.

Emotion is captivating. We like to watch it on TV, which is why so many people watch reality TV shows even though they know they shouldn’t. We put actors on pedestals, because they are practiced emoters. We even elect former actors President, because they’re able to look authentic doing what they do best: playing a part.

The Happy-Sad Exercise

Try the ‘happy-sad’ exercise. Here’s how it works. You start giving your speech, emoting as much happiness as you can. Not in the words — it’s cheating to say, ‘I’m really really happy‘ — but in your non-verbal cues — tone of voice, facial expression, gesture. You do this in front of a small audience of close friends or colleagues who won’t surreptitiously tape you and put it on YouTube. As soon as they see and feel real happiness, they shout ‘SAD!’ and it’s your job, without changing the speech content, to start emoting as much sadness as you can. Again, it’s all about the tone of voice, the facial expressions, and the gestures.

Once you’ve convinced the audience of your sadness, they shout ‘HAPPY!’ and you’re back to happy again.

The idea is to be over-the-top happy and sad in turn. It loosens you up and helps you prepare for the real thing.

So if you’re the type who has a hard time expressing emotions, or if your business or professional training has put a premium on control rather than expressiveness, you’ve got a problem. You’re going to be a boring speaker.

The solution is to open up a little. And the way to find your chops is to rehearse, so that you don’t go to uncomfortable extremes when you’re actually live and in person in front of an audience. Charisma, after all, is the tactful expression of a range of emotions. Laughing in the face of someone else’s tragedy, for example, is not charismatic, just wrong.

If you do the happy-sad exercise a few days before the actual speech, you’ll retain some of that animation during the performance, and you’ll be more charismatic as a result.

It works; try it.

5. The Walk-Through Rehearsal

I’ve written about the deer-in-the-headlights phenomenon earlier, when a speaker faces one too many unexpected obstacles and finds himself losing concentration and staring blankly at the source of the latest disaster wondering, ‘what do I do now’?

It doesn’t have to be that way. When you’ve got a big speech, insist upon a walk-through, or technical rehearsal. Get together the day before the event, or at the very latest the morning of the event, with the technical people upon whom your life will depend. Walk through the speech paying attention to all the technical aspects of the delivery.

What does it feel like to be miked? Does it restrict movement? Can you be heard? How are the sound levels?

What about the lighting? Does it shine in your eyes? Get used to it. Practice not squinting, looking just below the spotlights out to the audience. Can it follow you if you move? If you’re going out to the audience, work that with the tech folks. They’ll need to have a follow spot, or to turn the house lights up.

What about the camera coverage? Where do you need to be? Again, if you’re going into the audience (and you probably should be at some point), then you’re going to have to work that out with the techies. They’re going to be inclined to say they can’t manage it, but they can if they really put their minds to it. So negotiate that nicely, since their help and cooperation is essential for a successful show.

What about slides, notes, visual aids, music, sounds, video, and so on? Practice all that with the technical folks and have a plan B in case something goes horribly wrong and nothing works. Probably won’t happen, but you want to be ready if it does. (And if you cover well, and respond heroically, you’ll get a hero’s reception from the audience.)

Walk the entire hall, to get a sense of how big it is. Check out the sight lines, because you want to know how tiny you look from the back, or if you’re blocked by something from the side. Get to know the space, so you can fill it with your presence. The bigger the hall, the more energy is required. Check out Mick Jagger tapes to see how much energy is required to fill a stadium. It’s a lot.

A tech rehearsal, or walk-through, is essential when the stakes, and the hall, are big. Don’t leave it to chance or to the last moment. Remember Murphy’s Law.

The Off-Stage Beat Exercise

You need an offstage beat. Get into a frame of mind, such as I’m-about-to-see-a-close-friend-that-I-haven’t-seen-in-years-that-I’m-going-to-hug. Or something like that. Whatever floats your psychic boat. But make it positive, friendly, and all about connecting with someone.

Go offstage, get psyched, and then come charging on mentally hugging everyone in the audience and deliver your first line. Or better yet, your first story.

6. The Opening Rehearsal

The openings of speeches are incredibly important for setting the mood, the audience expectations, and the energy level in the house. That’s tough, of course, because that’s when most speakers are nervous and tentative.

Don’t be. There’s nothing natural about this. It’s not about being yourself. It’s about forcing yourself to walk — or bound — out on stage with focus, with energy, already thinking that the audience is comprised of some very close friends you’re really glad to see.

So a little self-hypnosis or self-talk is in order. Go watch actors backstage during a show. You’ll see them all getting into what they call the ‘offstage beat’. That means they don’t walk on stage and then think about delivering a line. They come from somewhere, already in a mood, already heading somewhere with something on their minds, already busy doing something.

By the way, spending the first few minutes saying “hi” and “how’s everyone in Topeka?” is amateur stuff. Don’t waste that opening opportunity to grab your audience and never let go. Start with something vivid, interesting, dramatic, or exciting. Jump right in and tell us the best story you know. Or ask the audience something compelling they haven’t thought about. Or interact with them in a more compelling way. Get some of them up on stage, or go into the audience and start conversing with them. You get the idea.

Rehearse the opening. Get an offstage beat. Don’t waste the moment of maximum interest. Start with a bang. You can repair the damage done by a wasted opening, but it’s hard work and takes the rest of the speech.

7. The Dress Rehearsal

The last full rehearsal you do should take place the day before, or 2 days before, the actual event. It should take place in the hall itself, it should involve the full technical panoply of video, music, slides, and so on that you’re using, and you should go the whole distance. By that I mean, don’t skip chunks; do the whole speech so that you get a good feel for how long it will take.

Dress rehearsals should follow the script just as if they were the real thing. The only difference is that there is no audience, or only a small one.

You should throw yourself into the dress rehearsal with all you’ve got. Don’t hold back just because it’s only practice. If you don’t practice the real thing, how will you know what it’s like?

It will be sufficiently different with an audience so that it will feel fresh on the day itself. And that’s all that matters.

The less-well-understood point of rehearsing, by the way, is to get a feel for the physicality of the speech — the non-verbal aspects — which are so important to the way the audience actually decodes your messages. Every speech is two conversations, the verbal and the non-verbal, and you need to be in control of both. Because when they are aligned, you can be persuasive. When they’re not aligned, the audience believes the non-verbal every time.

Preparing a speech means preparing both conversations. And the only way to find out what that second conversation looks like is to rehearse.


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