As most businesspeople know, preparing well for a presentation is vital. What they often don’t know is how to prepare, or what preparation is really for.
To an actor, preparation mostly means rehearsal – and when I work with businesspeople, that’s what I tell them we’ll be doing together. Companies put constant emphasis on business 'performance’, but in all my years as a trainer, I have never heard anyone mention business ‘rehearsal’.
If you were to tell an actor that they were expected to give a top-class performance with absolutely no rehearsal, they’d be aghast (given that we can’t all improvise like the late, great, Robin Williams). Yet that’s the expectation most businesspeople have of themselves and of each other, much of the time.
‘Rehearsal’ in French is ‘répétition’, and yes, it should involve a fair amount of doing things over and over again. But the reason for going back over a moment here, a turn of phrase there, is not just a dull memory exercise. Its true purpose is experimentation. It’s the best way to find out what actually works best – and then get good at delivering it.
For an actor, it goes without saying that rehearsal MUST be done aloud – and on your feet.
Yet in the business world, people often seem to imagine that preparing a presentation is about sitting down to scribble some notes, or (more likely) opening up PowerPoint and dumping words, words, words, onto the screen. They think rehearsal can be done in their heads.
If that’s you, that’s not preparation. At least, not in a way that really shows you at your best.
Going through what you intend to deliver out loud serves a number of purposes. Firstly, it creates a muscular memory. Yes – you use muscles to form words, though most people never think about that. Warming up lips, tongue, jaw and soft palate pays dividends – particularly when, for example, you’re using technical terms that are hard to get your mouth around.
A warmup also helps to imprint what you have to say into those four key muscular areas which create the sounds that make up words. You create a ‘muscle memory’, which bypasses the conscious part of your brain and so makes the words easier to say.
I’ll talk more about this in the future, but believe me, if you use those muscles properly, you will also begin to inhabit the words. Inhabiting the words for yourself will make them come alive for your audience. After all, if you’re not present in the words, why should your audience care about them?
Secondly, rehearsing out loud means you hear yourself speaking. And if you commit to the process properly, words begin to take on a life of their own – things just pop out of your mouth that you didn’t know were there beforehand. That’s the aural process kicking in of its own accord. By becoming your own audience (same root word, from the Latin audire, to hear) you’re allowing the ideas to form themselves into modes of expression that just doesn’t happen if you merely dump them down as bullet points on a screen. Writing is a noble craft – but a different one from speaking. So (unless you are a trained actor, or a naturally brilliant orator) writing down your message, word for word, in order to read it aloud will come over as exactly what it is – a written essay read aloud. In which case, why are you speaking it at all rather than sending it to your intended recipients… in writing?
The third, and most important reason for rehearsal is this: it gives you liberty. Liberty to be truly in the moment. Too many people assume that the actuality of delivery means repeating exactly what they’ve planned beforehand (in their heads or on the screen). But the ‘répétition’ word applies to the rehearsal, not the performance. Performing live does indeed carry a large element of sharing with an audience what you tried out in private. Much of it may indeed come out the same way, and work well. Some may not. No matter.
The point about rehearsal is not to become a parrot; it’s about giving you a solid platform of confidence. So that if, in the moment of delivery, a better idea occurs to you, you are able to incorporate it without being thrown. Or if you lose your thread, you are able to pick things up in a different order from the one you had decided upon. Or if someone interjects with a question that leads to some discussion, you can stay in control of the diversion and make sure it’s valuable, even if it means you’re having to ditch other content on the spot. Or if the lights suddenly go out or there’s an unexpected drilling noise from another room, you can handle the distraction – even incorporate a comment on it that demonstrates you are still completely at ease.
If you are, your audience will be too. And they’ll be all the more receptive to what you have to say, whether or not you accidentally leave something out. They never need to know what you forgot.
And the chances are, you didn’t need it anyway.