How to Rehearse for an Important Presentation

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Steve Jobs was the most astonishing business speaker of his time. Bill Gates once called him a “wizard” who “cast spells” on his audience. Fortune magazine proclaimed that his keynotes could set “hardened hearts aflutter.” Jobs is one of the few CEOs whose presentations have a dedicated Wikipedia page; his keynotes alone could spark a surge in Apple’s stock.

But if you pull back the curtain, you can understand why his presentations were so magical: practice, and lots of it. “Most people don’t realize that what looked spontaneous was rehearsed over and over and over,” John Sculley, the former Apple CEO, told me. “Steve thought about every word, every step, every demo.”

The best speakers make presentations look effortless precisely because they put so much effort into perfecting their delivery.

For nearly 20 years I’ve worked with leaders at some of the world’s largest brands — including Amazon, Coca-Cola, Intel, and McKinsey — to transform them from good speakers into great ones. They’re often surprised when I share this advice, but rehearsing is the single best use of time before a critical presentation. More preparation means less panic and more confidence.

Think of it this way: Astronauts, airline pilots, and Navy SEALS are not born with the ability to remain calm in a crisis. They train for pressure-packed situations under conditions similar to those they’ll face in the field. In the same way, repetitive exposure to public speaking will reduce the anxiety that often precedes a big event. Far from making you appear robotic or canned, rehearsing frees you up to enjoy the moment and deliver your message with passion and energy.

These five guidelines will help you get the most out of your rehearsal time.

Commit to 10x Improvement

The “gospel of 10x” is a popular business philosophy that traces its origin to Google cofounder Larry Page. Where most leaders are happy with a 10% improvement, Page expected his team to create products 10 times better than the competition’s. Anything less, Page reasoned, meant the product or company looked like all the others. The same strategy applies to public speaking. If you want to deliver a spellbinding presentation, one that’s significantly different from your competition’s, be prepared to rehearse far more than you’ve done in the past, and 10 times harder than your peers.

One executive I worked with was preparing to kick off an annual sales meeting. He planned to practice his 20-minute presentation about 15 times beforehand. I told him that Jill Bolte Taylor rehearsed her 18-minute TED Talk about 200 times before stepping onto the stage — giving her a 10x advantage. Her speech, “Stroke of Insight,” has been viewed 25 million times on the TED site alone.

Committing to 10x rehearsal is not as intimidating as it might seem. Repeating the first few minutes of your introduction as you drive somewhere or take a walk counts toward your goal. If there’s an especially complex or technical section of the presentation, spend more hours practicing those slides out loud.

Start as Strong as You End

At this point, you might start to fear that you sound too rehearsed. This is where communication becomes more art than science. Your goal is to feel confident without memorizing every line, and to leave room for spontaneity.

Remember that the two most important parts of your presentation are the beginning and the end. The intro sets the stage for the rest of the presentation and gives your audience a reason to care. Your conclusion determines what parts of your idea people will walk away with, and how they will feel about the presentation overall.

A TED Talk is one of the few cases where it makes sense to memorize each and every word, because there is a strict time limit of 18 minutes. For a general business meeting, nail down the first two minutes and the last two minutes of your presentation, as well as the first and last lines of each slide you share. If you do, you’ll be far ahead of your peers in practice time.

Practice Under Mild Stress

Susan Cain, the author of Quiet, is a self-described introvert who has battled a lifelong fear of public speaking. Accepting a TED Talk invitation was far outside of her comfort zone. On the Friday night before her talk, Wharton professor Adam Grant, a friend of Cain’s, gathered about 30 of his students and alumni to watch her practice. Rehearsing under “real-world” conditions gave Cain an opportunity to expose herself to the thing she feared and to face it in manageable doses. Cain’s talk on the power of introverts has been viewed over 24 million times since, and today she enjoys a career as a public speaker.

Researchers agree that the best way to deliver the presentation of a lifetime is to practice under stress. For her book Choke, Sian Beilock examined individuals who perform their best when it counts the most. “Even practicing under mild levels of stress can prevent you from choking when high levels of stress come around,” she writes.

Remember, going over a presentation in your mind is not the same as delivering the presentation in front of a crowd. The more you practice doing so, the less chance you will crack under pressure. At first, your body may react the way it was built to: Your heart rate may increase and your palms may sweat. But as you grow accustomed to being in front of an audience, even if it’s just one or two people, your body will stop exhibiting fight-or-flight symptoms. Soon enough, you’ll think of your speech as an opportunity instead of a threat.

Record Your Rehearsal

The most valuable practice tool you have fits right in your pocket: your smartphone. Set your phone on a tripod or prop it up against a book, press record, deliver your talk, and then play it back.

By watching your presentation, you will instantly catch distracting habits such as fidgeting, averting eye contact, or flipping your hair. Look for areas where you seem unsure of yourself or fumble your words. Those are the sections you’ll want to rehearse out loud or on the drive home.

Ask for Feedback

Before delivering his first TED Talk, author and podcaster Tim Ferriss practiced delivering his presentation to a small group of strangers in a friend’s house to put himself under pressure. But what he did afterwards was even more critical. He asked the crowd for feedback and incorporated their suggestions in his next rehearsal.

John Chambers, the former CEO of Cisco, has a similar practice. In his book, Connecting the Dots, he writes that it “stuns people” to find out how much he prepares for every presentation and media interview. Chambers is a Silicon Valley legend and was considered an effective communicator during his 20 years at the company. Humility, he says, is an attribute that served him well. Everything about his presentations was meticulously rehearsed — body gestures, delivery, messages, interactions with other speakers on stage. He would spend hours upon hours practicing, recording his sessions, watching them back with his team, and asking them for feedback — and still does so today. “As in sports, practice always pays off, and it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been a pro,” he writes.

There’s no magic involved in delivering a great presentation, but if you rehearse effectively, your audience will be mesmerized. Steve Jobs made presentations look easy because he put in the time, and his keynotes eventually became his competitive weapon.

An effective presentation can be your competitive weapon too. A great presentation can do so many things: launch careers, inspire employees, attract customers and investors and partners. Set aside hours of rehearsal time before your next critical presentation. It will pay off more than you can imagine.

This tip is adapted from How to Rehearse for an Important Presentation,” by Carmine Gallo

Carmine Gallo is the author of Five Stars: The Communication Secrets to Get from Good to Great (St. Martin’s Press). He is a Harvard University instructor in the department of Executive Education at the Graduate School of Design. Sign up for Carmine’s newsletter at carminegallo.com and follow him on Twitter

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