Inside Advice: How Much Should You Practice?

By Lou Solomon

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When I received the invitation to give a TED Talk a few years ago, I was already an experienced speaker and coach, but I didn’t know that a journey of fellowship and organic practice lay ahead.

First, there was a fellowship among the diverse group of speakers scheduled for the program. We shared our topics and stories and became friends.

One day, a talented artist named Nikki piped up and said she had already memorized her talk. She recited it every morning driving into the city and every afternoon driving home.

Here’s the good news — if you’re preparing for a high-stakes presentation, you don’t have to memorize it and recite it a hundred times. But you do need a plan.

Make a Practice Plan

There are four phases of organic practice. The actual number of times you practice is proportional to the importance of the talk. Find the range that will allow you to build muscle memory, grow confidence, and wear your speech like a comfortable pair of jeans. Submerge your psyche in the content so you can speak naturally and focus on connecting with your audience.

The following outline is a guide that might work for you, but you will want to customize it so that it works for you.

These are complete practice sessions, from beginning to end, out loud. Your slides will evolve; you will make changes as you talk through your presentation out loud.

Phase One

The first 2-3 practice rounds will feel messy as you read your notes out loud to become comfortable with the material. You’ll rearrange everything and try another run-through.

Phase Two

For the next couple of sessions, it’s a good idea to make an audio recording using an app on your phone. Listen for your phrasing and word choice. Is there a more concise way to say it? Does it sound like “real-speak”? Are you monotone, and if so, can you throw in some emphasis and projection?

In this phase, you can begin to work on timing. If you have 15 minutes to speak, practice a 12-minute presentation. Ending on time is a must, and finishing ahead of time is a bonus. If possible, don’t speak longer than 20 minutes before getting to Q&A.

Phase Three

Use your phone’s camera to record the next couple of sessions on video. Deliver the entire presentation. If you forget your place, improvise and keep going. Watch the video back and notice your body language. Notice the difference a smile makes.

Listen for anything that sounds too scripted. Memorize just three things: 1) your opening lines, 2) the headline or central idea of each slide, and 3) your closing lines.

You will want to speak from your knowledge for the rest of the talk and make eye contact with the audience instead of reading from slides.

Phase Four

Now it’s time for a couple of serious run-throughs, and it’s always a plus if you can get into a room similar to the one where you’ll give your presentation.

Work on flow. Don’t take your cues from PowerPoint. Begin to transition to the next topic before your advance to the next slide. You are the source of the talk, not your visuals.

Invite a friend or teammate to be your audience and record the talk on video. Watch the video together. Think about your vocal delivery and the gestures you make. Ask your audience member for feedback.

Organic practice requires that you put your whole heart into it. But the reward is the sweet satisfaction of giving the audience something unique — and nailing it.

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