When you are preparing for a really important presentation, and you want it to be just right, what special steps should you take? Here are some tips that will help ensure that rehearsals and read your audience practice makes perfect by
Say it out loud. Just as soon as you have your main ideas on paper, begin practicing out loud. Work on the spoken version rather than seeking a word-perfect script. Rehearsing in your head is not the same as making yourself do it out loud.
Start to finish. Rehearse the entire presentation, not just the opening lines or the first half. If time is short, run through the whole thing once, then focus on practicing the beginning and end. Note that we too often assume the ending will take care of itself, and we are so relieved to get there we often drop the ball. Plan and rehearse the ending.
Start early. Rehearse with visual aids as soon as you can, so that you are comfortable with them from the beginning. You can continue to make refinements as you go. The more times you verbalize it, the better. And by making refinements and verbalizing again, you are less dependent on the perfect words.
Seeing is believing. Record or videotape your presentation, so you can hear or see it as the audience will. This will help you accurately pinpoint strengths and weaknesses. It should help you build your confidence as you see the things you are doing well. And help you shore up any weak spots.
Get input. Invite a small group to attend a rehearsal. They can ask questions a real audience might, and give you feedback on both content and delivery. Be sure to work on the questions they pose so that you are prepared for pretty much any question that arises.
You might be thinking “This is going to take some time.” True, but if the presentation is important, then the preparation is worth every minute of your time!
How to Read Your Audience
How do you know what your audience is thinking, how engaged they are, or how well they understand your content? If you are a novice speaker, keep in mind that while you want to be responsive, too much focus on the audience can be a huge distraction. Once you know your material really well and have built some confidence, you may be able to begin periodically “checking in” to see how the audience is responding.
Be aware that it is very difficult to know what someone else is really thinking. Does arms crossed mean they are resisting your ideas, or that the room is too cool? Does lack of eye contact mean they are bored silly, or that they are thinking about another pressing matter? Does tapping at their phones mean they are tuned out, or are they taking notes on a smartphone? Each of these examples can be confusing and distracting, so just be aware that audience reactions can have a number of meanings and reasons.
That said, here are some strategies to help you begin to “read” your audience in order to increase awareness and the ability to adjust as needed, without losing focus:
Watch for trends. One person yawning does not mean you are boring. But if you see lots of yawns, crossed arms, or lack of eye contact, prepare to take action. For example: ask open-ended questions, suggest a “pop quiz” or announce a quick break.
Seek the real reasons. A quiet group might be dealing with issues that have nothing to do with you—or might just feel like being quiet. A lot of yawning might mean the room is too warm, or there was a late event the night before. Action: move your presentation to the discussion. Pair people up and have them discuss what you just told them.
Ask questions. Try asking for a show of hands. Use open-ended questions, and be prepared to wait for answers. If your group is really silent, ask them to write their questions on a note card, or have them pair up and discuss their reactions. Or have a case study ready for them to work on.
Chat ‘em up. Visit with people before the presentation and on breaks to get a more informal “read.” Also, check in on break; I once had an audience member who looked like he was disagreeing with everything I said. While visiting on the next break I realized he was squinting to see better and that he was perfectly comfortable with the content.
Put it in writing. Ask for feedback throughout your presentation via comment cards, Post-it™ notes, a straw poll, or a vote. Read and respond to this feedback periodically.
While you need to keep your focus and not get too distracted, you can stay tuned to your audience’s needs and level of interest. Use these tips to be sure you have an accurate “read” before making dramatic changes in your presentation.