We've all heard the story about Arthur Rubinstein telling a tourist how to get to Carnegie Hall through "practice, practice, practice."
Even if the start to your speech begins with a similarly creaky joke, your audience will probably forgive you--if you seem enthusiastic, entertaining and informative. That is, if you've practiced.
Fortunately, you don't have to spend a lifetime like Rubinstein did with the piano to wow your audience. In fact, you don't have to memorize or write word-for-word what you're going to say in your presentation. Here are some tips on how you should prepare.
Have the first and last part of your presentation well-rehearsed.
For instance, if you don't know how to end, you may not figure out how to--until you see your weary-looking audience leaving their seats and filing out the door. Robin Wolaner, CEO of TeeBeeDee, an information network for people 40 years and older, says she always knows exactly how she is going to open a presentation. "Although I am generally at ease in front of an audience, I don't leave that to chance," she says. "My opening remarks are scripted and written, so if I am nervous at first, I can get into a rhythm through reading. I never read more than a few words, but I feel more secure knowing they are there."
That's not to say that in between hello and good-bye, you have license to ramble incoherently. "Knowing the material frees you up to be flexible in the moment, respond to your audience's feedback, and it calms you down," says Claire Gibbons, an executive communications trainer at Rawle Murdy Associates in Charleston, South Carolina. "Because, if you know your stuff, you can focus on the most important part of a presentation: making a connection."
To make sure the end of your presentation goes as planned, Sherron Bienvenu, a communications professor at Emory University, recommends taking the questions from the audience before delivering your last final parting thoughts. That way, "you have prepared the last words they hear."
Divide your material.
Of course, there is no one way to practice giving a presentation. But if you want to be thorough, you would do well to follow the Joe Takash model. Takash, the owner of Victory Consulting in Chicago, has conducted more than 3,000 presentations. For him, the practicing is in how he sets up his speech.
He divides his material into categories and then color codes it. Anything humorous he types in red; audience interaction material in blue; humorous and interactive in green; and pure "lecture" material in black. Points that need to be hammered home are bolded.
When he's done, he looks at all of the colors. "If there's too much red, then I'm chasing the laugh, and there isn't enough substance," says Takash. "But if I see too much black, then I know the audience is going to be passive instead of active. What you want to see is a nice blend of colors. It makes my confidence in my delivery much higher, going into the presentation."
Takash also recommends videotaping yourself, adding that it's a little like watching your own golf swing. You can't really critique yourself until you see what you're doing right and wrong. Takash, who has helped numerous clients with their presentations, says he's never had someone look at their videotape and say, "Wow, I was phenomenal."
Make sure your practice pays off.
Once you feel like you've practiced enough to be phenomenal, Elaine Fantle Shimberg, a Tampa, Florida-based medical author of 20 books, suggests finding out some of the details surrounding your speech. For instance, "Never, if you can help it, be the last speaker at a three-day seminar," she says. "You'll be talking to rows of suitcases and people ready to run out to catch their planes."
Wolaner adds that you should never go last in a line of presenters. "Most moderators are incapable of keeping panel participants to the allotted time, and there is nothing worse than preparing for a panel discussion and being pre-empted," she says. "I would do anything in the advance planning, to the point of being considered rude and demanding."
If you haven't adequately prepared, there's still (some) hope.
If possible, especially if you aren't prepared, "get there at least one hour beforehand," suggests Peter Madden, founder of AgileCat.com, a marketing and branding firm in Philadelphia. "It gives you the lay of the land and gives you time to spend with some of the audience, so you can get a specific idea of what they want out of the discussion." And if you're going into a presentation ill-prepared and need an idea for an opening, approach it in the same way Madden likes to open his presentations.
"Tell a story about a big, fat mistake you made in business, and the valuable lesson learned," advises Madden. "It immediately endears you to your audience and humanizes you."
Why not? And you already have your story ready--the one about how you once blew off practicing for a presentation.
Other articles in "The Perfect Presentation Series":
Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.