Practicing Your Talk

The second step to delivering an effective Oral Presentation is Practice. Practice is a necessary part of presentation preparation, but there are different types of practice that help accomplish specific goals.

1. Practicing delivery on your own will help you to: 1) become familiar with the material you’re delivering, 2) develop a proper cadence and rhythm for your speech, and 3) allow you to establish proper timing for your talk.

Ideal presentation delivery is not usually achieved by reading a prepared speech, but by engaging the audience through a natural, conversational style. If working from notes, use these practice sessions to develop a familiarity with the material and to develop/memorize key sentences that will anchor parts of your talk. If you’re working from a memorized text or reading a written speech, you should try not to sound like you’re reading, and work on fostering natural, conversational delivery.

Timing is important in oral presentations: when you’re given a time limit, respect it. In most situations – such as conference panels with a hard time limit and more than one speaker – audiences do not have the luxury or the inclination to listen beyond the given times. In fact, audiences tend to get annoyed if a speaker goes over significantly. When practicing, ensure that you time yourself. In order to get accurate timing, your practice sessions have to be uninterrupted. Times in these practice sessions aren’t always accurate because they don’t mimic the real conditions of delivery very well – but they will give you rough idea of whether or not you’re in the ballpark.

2. Practicing in front of a mirror can allow you to work on: 1) maintaining eye contact, 2) using gestures appropriately, and 3) making sure you’re familiar with the material.

When working on eye contact, ensure that you’re actually engaging the audience and sustaining the contact for more than a few seconds. In other words, make sure that you’re not just looking in the general vicinity of the audience, but making actual contact with audience members. In the mirror, focus on your own eyes, and note when and how often you look away. If you need to look away (at your notes) every few seconds, you’ll need to become more familiar with the content. A second or two at a time is not usually sufficient to connect with the audience. Instead, focus on maintaining eye contact for sustained periods (if you need to, look at your notes for longer periods as well).

If you have a large or full-length mirror, you can also use this technique to correct your posture and identify your gesturing techniques. Use this time to spot problems with your gesturing – too much or too little – and identify areas in the talk where you can use gestures to add emphasis or meaning to your presentation.

3. Practicing in front of others is the best type of practice because it mimics the actual conditions of delivery. In this situation, you have “one go” and can time your delivery more accurately, and should be able to practice eye contact, gesturing, and generally engaging the audience. If possible, use this opportunity to test your familiarity and interaction with the visuals you plan on using.

You should also ask your friends for feedback on the content and structure of the talk, and make sure that the talk served the purpose that you identified in the planning stage.

More Practice Strategies: When working on effective vocal and physical delivery, you may want to try some of these simple practice strategies; these shouldn’t be used in the actual performance, but are useful for fine tuning specific aspects of delivery. The first relates to gesture and voice, the second is an audience reminder trick, and the last two focus on enunciation [1]:

A. The bad actor strategy: Try performing the talk aloud (and alone behind a locked door) as if you were a bad actor (William Shatner comes to mind). Go completely over the top! Make huge sweeping gestures and overdo the words. Do this Twice. As you do it the second time, try to make mental note of two key things:

  • Where your voice rises for emphasis
  • Where you want to make gestures

The information you gain here shows you the natural points of emphasis. That important information can now be used in a “normal” version of the talk. Of course, one of the things you’ll find is that “normal” has changed, as the speech becomes more energized.

B. Follow the Leader Practice: One of the most important, but most neglected, aspects of the talk is how we make transitions between points. Imagine you have an audience full of people with very poor short-term memories, but you’re trying to get through to them. Deliver your talk repeating everything, and using whatever transitions you need to make that audience grasp your talk, without forgetting points. Here are some useful transition words / strategies:

“First, … second, … third, …”
“Now that we understand the background to the problem …”
“Logically, this point leads to the second aspect of my talk …”
“After this point …”
“Now you can understand why …”
“In conclusion…”
“As a final afterthought …”
“Thank you.  Now, I’d be glad to respond to any questions.”

C. The Eliza Doolittle Method: In “My Fair Lady” Eliza had the accent knocked out of her with speech lessons. We all need that. Finding our best pitch, our best tone and our best accent requires practice. Choose a familiar bit of speech and use it to hone your delivery. You’re best off to start with something other than your speech, and only apply it to your speech later. Speeches by Shakespeare, Churchill, or Martin Luther King Jr. all serve well as practice points. Once you’ve mastered one of these, then bring the same enunciation effort to your talk. If you have an accent, you need to learn this exercise taking particular care of sounds that may trip your listeners. For example, many Chinese speakers of English struggle to distinguish “l” vs. “r” etc., so you need to work with these sounds, particularly if they appear in words that are central to your purpose.

D. The Mouth of Marbles Technique: This exercise is designed to work your mouth muscles to help you enunciate more clearly. It is a good trick to do as shortly before your talk as possible (as well as a regular exercise if you’re doing a lot of speaking). Place two fingers between your teeth and practice this speech:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.

After you’ve done it once or twice with your fingers between your teeth, remove your fingers and do it again. Take note of the sensation in your lips – those are muscles beginning to work. Do the same thing with the opening of your talk. Then deliver the whole talk.

[1] Irish, R., Tiede, K., and Weiss, P. Oral Communication Course Notes. Engineering Communication Program, Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, University of Toronto. 2004.