In an earlier article I expressed my puzzlement as to why people who wouldn’t for a second expect to be able to play like Oscar Peterson the first time they sit down at a piano, think an audience will expect them to perform like Winston Churchill the first time they speak in front of a group. Of course such expectations exist only in the mind of the rookie speaker. I’m equally puzzled, though, as to why so many speakers, rookies and seasoned veterans alike, think they don’t need to rehearse. Everyone needs to rehearse.
A number of years ago I happened to be in the great pop singer Anne Murray’s dressing room in Las Vegas just before her final performance of a lengthy engagement. She was rehearsing her hit song “Snowbird,” song she had sung thousands of times, and probably at least ten times that week. Yet she felt that something wasn’t quite right with the last rendition, and there she was, with her guitar player, going over it again just before taking the stage. Except in instant, breaking-news situations, professional newscasters always rehearse what they’re going to say before going on the air. World-class athletes practice their skills over and over throughout their entire careers. It’s been said that Al MacInnis (no relation), one of the hardest and most accurate shooters in National Hockey League history, used to shoot the puck ten thousand times between seasons. If accomplished superstars, like Anne Murray and Al MacInnis, and seasoned broadcasters recognize the need to practice what they do regularly for a living, why should you or I ever think that we don’t need to practice something that we do only occasionally?
The audience hears what you say only while you’re saying it. When you’re delivering your speech the audience doesn’t have the time to pause and reflect on your words, nor do they have the opportunity to stop your speech, rewind it, and listen to certain parts of it again. The only way to be sure your content and delivery are appropriate and effective is to rehearse. Rehearsing is the best way to become familiar with your material, and it is the only way to determine how it actually sounds.
Rehearsing allows you to identify and eliminate words that you have difficulty pronouncing and phrases that look fine on paper but turn into tongue twisters at the lectern. Rehearsing lets you determine whether your sentences are too long (it’s probably not possible for them to be too short). Rehearsing provides an opportunity for you to determine pacing, where pauses will be the most effective, and where added emphasis is required. If you rehearse properly, a great deal of effective rewriting and improvement of your material will take place while you do so.
The only way to accurately time the length of your speech is to rehearse it.
A good way to rehearse a talk is to do so at a lectern (with your visual aids, if any) in front of a few people. But be careful about heeding the advice you receive from members of the audience. Unless the person advising you is a skilled speaker, or the advice is obviously sound, take it with a grain of salt and rely more on your own instincts about how well the rehearsal went. Be sure the rehearsal audience understands that you will be stopping frequently to make changes in wording and to try different approaches to your delivery. Do not attempt an uninterrupted run-through, even for timing purposes, until you are completely comfortable with your content.
The ideal way to rehearse a talk would be the same way, but in front of an experienced, skilled speaking coach who will record your rehearsal so that the two of you can view and critique it together. Although you should take a professional coach’s advice more seriously than you would that of friends, relatives and colleagues, remember that the speech is yours and that you alone will be responsible for the effect it will ultimately have on the audience. Keep an open mind, but if you’re uncomfortable with the expert advice be sure the coach has compelling reasons before you accept any suggested changes that don’t feel right to you.
You can rehearse by yourself, but try to do so at least once standing at a lectern. Do not rehearse in front of a mirror. You’ll spend far too much time and energy looking at yourself rather than concentrating on content and delivery, all the time forgetting that you’re actually seeing things backwards in any event.
Then there is a lot of very effective informal rehearsing that you can do. Simply reading the speech out loud is helpful. You can go over the main points and experiment with different words and phrases in your mind every chance you get, such as when showering, waiting for elevators, or stuck in traffic. You can also rehearse portions of your speech out loud by slipping parts of it into your everyday conversations with colleagues, friends or family members. You can also ask colleagues, friends and family members to listen to parts of it in order to get their feedback and to judge for yourself how it sounds.
It is not possible to over-rehearse. The more you rehearse, either formally or informally, the more comfortable and confident you will be when you stand at the lectern and say, “Good evening ladies and gentlemen, it’s a great pleasure to be here,” rather than, “Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking...”