It usually takes more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech. – Mark Twain
If it matters, you rehearse
Contestants that participate in the Toastmasters International competition to win the coveted title of World Champion of Public Speaking PRACTICE — a lot! One contestant said he practiced one hour a day for a year before going into competition. Another said he must have practiced his final competition speech 100 times.
You might think, “Oh brother – that’s too much”. Well, I agree we don’t need to practice our presentations that much. But absolutely the MINIMUM is 3 times. Each time you rehearse, areas for improvement will surface.
I like this recommendation for practice from Michael Podolinsky. In this day and age of people chatting on the phone while driving, no one will think your nuts….
Polish your delivery by practicing in your car, to and from work. The other drivers around you may think you are nuts, but that quiet time is great for honing skills in schedules that are usually too busy for practice.
The surprise benefit of practice is that the more familiar you are with your talk the less nervous you will be when you deliver it.
Example of a Practiced Speech
I have found, for me, it takes a minimum of SIX rehearsals of a speech before it begins to sparkle. Here is an example of how I practiced one speech:
One month I gave three different speeches. Each speech was less than ten minutes each. Each one I practiced while driving to and from work. I was able to practice each speech 7-10 times before I actually delivered them to a live audience.
One of the speeches I delivered was titled “My Mother’s Day.” It was about the last few days of my mother’s life. This is what happened when I rehearsed that speech:
- The first rehearsal is to get a sense of time. It was way too long! I had to eliminate half of my material.
- The second rehearsal revealed additional material needing to be eliminated to bring the speech within the allotted time.
- By the third rehearsal, the word crafting comes in. I can hear rambling, ineffective sentences. I weed out weak words. I seek ways to express the most in as few words as possible. For example, rather than describing in detail the way mom looked or the various symptoms she was exhibiting (unable to keep food down, we were forcing her to drink water, she’d open her eyes and acknowledge us now and then, etc.) I simply said, “I looked at mom – not much had changed in the last 2 days. That is to say, she was conscious but not very responsive.”
- By the fourth rehearsal the timing is down solid. As I continue to rehearse, I listen for areas where I can add rhythm (see “Rhythm” page.)
Pauses are added: For example, I added a long pause after sharing what the doctor recommended my brother and I do about mom’s failing condition before I shared what we decided.
Repetition and rhyme is added: I found areas where a word or phrase could be repeated or rhymed. For example, “Mom wasn’t moving much,” and “We knew. We knew what we had to do.”
- By the fifth rehearsal, the speech feels natural –I don’t have to try hard to remember what to say next. I continue to seek words that paint vivid pictures. I add sensory storytelling elements (see “Stories” page) such as a smell or sound. For example, “The phone rang only once.”; “I could hear her voice fade as I walked down the hall.” I added the image of the nurse fiddling with the water IV. That alone is a picture worth a thousand words.
- During the sixth rehearsal, I practice the opening and the close of the speech a few extra times to make sure they are memorized, smooth and powerful. This enables me to really look at the audience, and connect with them at the critical moments, rather than struggle to remember the words to say.
How much time did this all take? A little over 90 minutes. About 10-15 minutes each day for 5-6 days. That’s it.
By time I delivered the “My Mothers Day” speech, I didn’t need a lectern. I didn’t need notes. My gestures were smooth and natural. I had lots of vocal variety. It was very dramatic. There were no ah’s, ers or ums. The audience was spellbound. You could hear a pin drop. And, when I finished – right on time – the applause was delayed, but then loud and appreciative. I felt I had done a good job and grateful I rehearsed as often as I did.
Be Prepared for Overtime!
Public Speaking for Dummies tells us that a speech you rehearse alone will be an average of 33% longer when you deliver it in front of a large audience. This basically means a five-minute talk to yourself might run 6 ½ or 7 minutes in front of an audience. A 10-minute talk could run 13-14 minutes. The time increase may range as high as 60% when you speak to an audience of several hundred people. That is the primary reason why meetings run overtime.
Because so many people do run overtime, someone may ask you to cut your speech. Don’t try to deliver your full speech in a smaller time crunch. Instead, decide on your five most important slides, or two most important points and don’t cut your conclusion. I suggest following Master Presenter and Branding Coach, Jack Barnard’s recommendation to prepare and practice several versions of your message: a 30-45 second commercial, a five-minute version, a 15-minute version, a 45-minute keynote speech, and maybe even a half-day or all day seminar on your topic. Then, when asked to cut or add to a presentation the day you are delivering it, you already have shorter and longer versions prepared.