The Best Ways to Practice for Your Speech

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How often have you had to give a speech, but did little to no practice ahead of time? I don’t mean impromptu speeches; I’m talking about getting lots of notice about the speech but choosing to avoid practice altogether. It’s an easy step to want to skip. After all, practice isn’t glamorous, it can be tedious and boring, and sometimes it even increases your nervousness about giving the speech because it keeps it on your mind. But practicing effectively is the difference between stumbling your way through the speech, or knocking it out of the park.

This past weekend I participated in the mock audience TEDxAtlanta requires its speakers to complete before they go on stage for the main show. Mock audience is when the speakers give their full talk, slides and all, to a small audience (10-15 people, max) of people who’ve never seen or heard it before.

The main purpose of this practice is to make sure that a fresh set of eyes and ears can easily identify the main point the speaker is trying to make. If the audience has multiple ideas about what they’re supposed to be learning, or worse, no idea at all, then the speaker has some work to do. Additionally, if there’s something about the speaker’s slides or delivery that interferes with the audience receiving the message, then this fresh perspective can help identify it.  We know that asking our speakers to practice frequently will lead to great performances. So let’s talk about the best ways to practice for your speech.

Skilled speakers rely on two types of practice to deliver a great speech:

1) Practice to make revisions 

2) Practice to perform 

When you are practicing to make revisions, you perform your speech knowing that things are going to change. For instance, my advanced Toastmasters club focuses on being a laboratory for speakers, where we can come with new or underdeveloped material and get coaching and feedback on what we need to do to make it better. Speakers will frequently ask the coaches to focus on something specific related to the development of their speech, like how effective was the introduction, or what do they need to do to improve the transitions.

If you’re practicing to make revisions, then make sure that you’re practicing with trusted colleagues or a coach who will give you honest and constructive feedback. Identify key areas of your speech that you’re particularly struggling with and get their ideas on how to improve it. And be open to change; it’s easy to get attached to material that we think is great, when in reality it’s not resonating with the audience no matter what you do with it.

It can be easy to relentlessly tweak a speech, however, there comes a point where you should finalize the content and start thinking about delivery and staging. At this point you began work on the second type of practice, which is practicing to perform. While practicing to perform, the focus is now on how you use tone, staging, and gestures to get your message across.

During this type of practice, it’s very effective to practice alone (I’m a famous keynote speaker while I’m in the shower) as well as in front of an audience. You can record yourself, work one-on-one with a coach who is focused only on how you present the material, or in front of friends and family. This practice helps you refine how you move around on stage, adjust tone to convey specific emotions, and helps you get used to your slides.

Additionally, this type of practice helps you remember the speech so you don’t need notes! Practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect, but it does tend to make permanent. Which is why practicing early and often can have a big impact on your performance as a whole.

Practicing to excel at anything is hard, frustrating work. It reveals the weak points you need to address, requires you to open yourself up to critique, and the repetitive nature can be boring for some. But practicing effectively is where the magic happens; it’s what elevates you from a competent (or not) on-the-fly speaker to a professional who works on their craft.