By Lynda Russell-Whitaker

Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good.  It’s the thing you do that makes you good.
From Malcolm Gladwell, ‘Outliers: The Story of Success

The title of this article might seem like stating the obvious, but the fact is it does actually take practice to practise. As the quote by best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell suggests, it is the doing of something over and over again that hones our skills to the point of excellence.

All habits, whether good or bad, take a while to be really embedded, so we need to be patient with ourselves. Most of us won’t remember just how long it took to form the teeth brushing habit twice a day – probably by constant nagging for months by one or both parents!

Yet it’s very important to develop new, positive habits and practises as well as discard old, often outmoded ones.

Brushing one’s teeth takes practice...
Brushing one’s teeth takes practice…

This applies to many aspects of our lives, of course, but I want to turn your attention to the practice of preparing and rehearsing for a key presentation; I’m including speeches and pitches in this more general term.

How much time do you usually devote to this? Be honest! Several people I’ve spoken to recently confess that they devote very little time to practising their pitch; to the extent that some rehearse their pitch in the cab journey on the way to the client. Not really the best way to win.

Often people bemoan the shortage of time to prepare and rehearse for pitches or presentations, and yet most of us will say we want to win that piece of business. If it’s for a presentation, it could be an important marketing or PR exercise at a high profile event filled with people you’d be happy to have as clients.

So why on earth would you leave the success of your talk so much to chance?

To be fair, there are some people who need little or no preparation. This is either because they have been speaking in public for so many years that they are very practised at it, or because they know their subject matter extremely well and prefer to be spontaneous when talking on the subject.

Conversely, there are those people who give terrible presentations due to debilitating nerves.

The vast majority of presentations and speeches that I witness in the UK, however, are simply dull. Fundamental errors include: too much information on the slides; poorly structured and unbalanced content; bland delivery that includes a monotonous, mumbling voice accompanied by slouching and little or no eye contact with the audience.

Practice to present, not just to brush teeth
Practice to present, not just to brush teeth

Of course, I’m going to recommend working with a coach on a key presentation or pitch! That being said, much improvement can be made with good preparation and a decent amount of rehearsal time.

Once you start to take the time to perfect and practise your talk, ironing out glitches as you go, you’ll find that – like brushing your teeth –the habit will form.

Although abridged, here are some suggestions to help form this positive habit:-

Find some peace and quiet for half an hour or more. What are three key points you want the audience to remember? Write these down.

Once you have these points, flesh them out, making sure your content is balanced. Your credentials and credibility are important (ethos) along with any data and knowledge you are imparting (logos).

However, don’t forget to inject emotion through your choice of words and delivery (pathos).

Include examples to illustrate and strengthen your points: quotes from experts, anecdotes or short stories all reinforce your points and enable an audience to remember them. Think about how you are going to deliver your presentation and to whom. Ask yourself if your style and content fit well with the audience.

Practise your delivery on your own (without a mirror), or in front of a trusted colleague or friend. Record it on audio.

Listen to it a few times; make notes and revisions where you know it clearly needs work.
If you hear too many ‘umms/errs’ or fillers such as ‘like’ or ‘at the end of the day’, then rehearse until you are more confident with your content and these are reduced substantially.

Also pay attention to your eye contact, facial expressions and hand gestures. Relax. Smile occasionally! Along with pacing, pausing and modulating your voice, this will help to engage your audience.

We often overuse volume for emphasis rather than a change in pitch. Try practising your talk as if it’s a children’s story to hear the difference.

Make diary entries to review your talk daily or weekly. Spend at least 15 minutes daily if the event is happening that week; 30 minutes weekly if it’s happening several weeks or months hence.

I’ll leave the last words with Aristotle:

“We are what we repeatedly do.
Excellence, then, is not an act,
but a habit.”

Rehearsal 1