In the past two decades I’ve delivered well over a thousand presentations, mostly live but also increasingly virtual as well (thanks, pandemic!). I’ve spoken to six people and to six thousand, and I’ve been everywhere from theaters to factory floors.
No matter where I am, it’s fairly common for someone to ask me when I get finished how they can improve their own public speaking. It’s happened often enough, in fact, that I recently put together a Presentation Skills and Public Speaking training course for those who want to dive more thoroughly into this. But in case you’re looking for a quick fix to improve your speaking abilities, here’s the single most important tip.
You have to practice – and you have to practice OUT LOUD.
Unless you are blindsided by a last-minute request to deliver a public address in the next 12 seconds, there is no excuse for not practicing your talk before you have to give that talk in front of an audience. Welders practice welding before they’re allowed to build bridges, rodeo clowns practice clowning before they jump in the ring with a rampaging bull, videogamers practice killing zombies before they enter themselves in competitions, and you have to practice speaking if they want to become an accomplished speaker.
That should be obvious – we have to practice everything we want to be good at. But why out loud? Well, you don’t ALWAYS have to practice out loud. Quiet mental preparation is fine too, and I will frequently look at my slide deck before I get on stage and do a mental checklist of every major point I want to cover. That definitely helps. But there is no substitute for saying everything out loud to make sure you’re saying what you actually want to say, that the words sound right coming out of your mouth, and that your presentation will last as long as it’s supposed to. At this point I’m so accustomed to practicing my presentations out loud that I actually practice my articles out loud, too. As I’m writing this, I’m saying the words out loud to see if they sound OK – and when they don’t, I go back and re-write whatever sentence didn’t come out right until it does sound good.
Now, is talking to yourself going to make you look like a crazy person? Absolutely. So do it where no one can see you. The two places I most commonly practice my presentations are when I’m alone in the car, or when I’m walking my dog around the block. Sometimes I’m referring to notes, and sometimes I’m trying to do it from memory. And guess what? If anyone does see me walking around talking to myself, they leave me alone! Nobody ever asks me for money – they just speed up to get away from the crazy guy. It’s actually oddly liberating once you get used to it.
My goal, especially with presentations that I plan on delivering more than once, is to know the words well enough that I can spend most of my energy concentrating not on what I’m saying, but on how I’m delivering it – on my body language, my inflection, my energy and comic timing. Saying my words out loud, and doing it more than once, is a critical part of getting to that level.
But even if you’re preparing a five-minute weekly update with your team of three colleagues, it won’t hurt to spend five minutes saying everything you plan on saying to see how it sounds. At a minimum, it will reinforce the major points you want to get across so that you are unlikely to forget them or gloss over something that deserves special attention. And who knows? You might end up realizing that what you planned to say isn’t what you wanted to say, make a few quick edits, and end up with a better update than you would have had otherwise. You won’t get worse by practicing, that’s for sure.
So there you go. And, as this article is now finished, I can officially stop mumbling all these words to myself – which means I can open the door to my office and once again rejoin society. Have a great month!