Practicing a Presentation

by Site Author

Suppose you have an important presentation in three weeks. You need to dazzle the audience. How do you prepare?

Some people focus exclusively on the content. They obsess over the appearance of the slides. And to ensure that they won’t forget their main points, they fill the slides with dozens of bullet points.

I believe in a different approach. First, keep the slides bare. Humans cannot listen and read at the same time. So all of those bullet points don’t help. If anything, they only encourage the audience to ignore you and read your slides. It’s called a talk for a reason.

Once you have stylish-but-bare slides, you then need to rehearse. You need to actually practice saying the words out loud. This is the step that most people skip, but they should not skip it. When you don’t practice out loud, you end up speaking awkwardly. I once saw a Nobel prize winner give a lecture in a large auditorium. A thousand people were in the room. He clearly hadn’t prepared, and he spoke terribly. No matter how smart you are, if you haven’t rehearsed at all, you wont speak well.

How should you actually rehearse? Psychologists have studied performers, and their research suggests two key factors that can make rehearsals productive.

First, the researchers discovered what they call “deliberate practice.” Deliberate practice is best exemplified by a study of pianists rehearsing a Shostakovich concerto. The researchers instructed 17 pianists to learn the conerto from scratch. They found that the quality of the performance was unrelated to the number of hours that the pianists spent practicing. Instead, the quality of the final performance was associated with how the pianists practiced.

The best performers practiced the hardest parts of the concerto most frequently. They kept on practicing those pieces of the concerto until their mistakes went away, and then they moved onto other parts of the concerto.

Deliberate practice is practice in which the performer focuses only on the hardest parts of the performance. In contrast, practice that is not deliberate is practicing material that one has already mastered. For instance, some pianists will just practice scales or parts of the concerto that are easiest. That is a waste of time. Diliberate practice involves constantly challenging oneself.

A second key factor is called “distributed practice.” (This is also called “spaced repetition.”) Since 1913, psychologists have known that rehearsals are more effective when you space them out over time. Spending two hours rehearsing over several days is much more effective than spending two hours in one day. (An excellent article in Wired on the topic is here.)

So now back to that important presentation. You have three weeks to pull off a masterful performance. How do you prepare? Your practice needs to be deliberate and distributed.

Take your presentation and split it up into pieces. Usually there’s a five-minute introduction, a ten-minute background section, and so on. Then draw a table on a sheet of notebook paper: each column is a section of the presentation and each row is a day that you have to practice.

Spend ten minutes each day adding tick marks to the table. Practice pieces of the presentation every morning, practicing out loud and standing up. But only practice for ten minutes a day.

All in all, this amounts to a few hours of preparation, just split up over many days. Each session is difficult; you need to rehearse the hardest parts of the presentation first. But, come showtime, you will be ready.