You know, I’ve come to believe that bullet points kill. I say this from day one in my class–bullets kill. Don’t use them (unless you absolutely have to). But, after three years of teaching public speaking, I realize that I’ve seen lots of zen-like visuals, loads of neat ideas for how to convey information, and a plethora of subjects discussed in a myriad of ways, but that I’ve equally been witness to disjointed, chaotic presentations, complete with moments of cognitive and communicative disaster, verbal diarrhea, and sloppy delivery. So, perhaps my focus has been misdirected. Perhaps it’s not only bullets that kill, but also unrehearsed, unpracticed presenters. This realization surfaced after a rather painful series of worst case scenario/how to team presentations.
It was painfully evident from the time class started that most of the groups had not rehearsed or practiced together once. I had to remind most of the class that this was a formal presentation, and that they were expected to dress professionally. Several groups had not even finished their slides. Because my classes are small, I open up the first 90 minutes of presentation day to dress rehearsal with me, after all, I am the one assessing the group’s presentation; it also makes sense to do at least one run through in the presentation environment/context.
One hour into dress rehearsal time and only one group came to me indicating an interest in rehearsing. Another group sat in front of me and explained that practice would make their performance seem disingenuine. Then, about 30 minutes before presentations were to begin, the groups started scrambling to rehearse. The three groups who did rehearse had clearly not even spoken about who would tackle what information; they hadn’t even considered if they had enough information to go on, nor had several of the groups even developed a strong hook. I was five minutes from canceling the presentations and asking the students to present the next class.
Needless to say, presentations themselves were mostly forgettable. It was clear to everyone present who had bothered to practice and who had not taken the assignment seriously. During our post presentation Q & A, we all agreed that I did not have to lecture them on the importance of practice and rehearsal. They were first hand witnesses to what happens when you don’t rehearse or practice, when you believe “winging it” will give you that Ken Robinsonesque level of comfort and conversational tone. Now, in a perfect world, these students will learn from this lesson and always practice in the future. However, I know from observing their final project business pitches that they don’t practice when the stakes are higher, that there is a great divide between theory and practice when it comes to rehearsal. The average presenter devotes little time to practice and rehearsing, perhaps from nervousness, perhaps from overconfidence. But, my students are amazing people; I want them to be amazing presenters.
Presentation skills are not cookies. Chocolate chips won’t compensate for you being an average speaker. Your audience spends a lifetime in meetings listening to people who are average speakers and wishing they were somewhere else. –Andrew Dlugan, Six Minutes
This experience has caused me to do a bit of self-reflection on my own approach to teaching this subject and the amount of time I spend holding students accountable for practice and rehearsal. It’s also caused me to think a bit more about why people don’t practice, and how I can reinforce in others that great presenting is not magic, great presenters don’t just happen, great presenters practice; they mold and shape themselves into super stars through consistent learning, expanding, and practice. In my search for inspiration, I found the work of Nick Morgan, Forbes contributor and passionate communicator. Nick shares the story of a CEO, whose overconfidence and lack of experience culminated in a speech that was so awful that it generated a catch phrase in the public speaking world: “Jumping the Couch,” a phrase originating from the presenter’s odd delivery choice: Jump on a couch, do a martial arts trick, speak a few lines from the speech. Repeat for 60 minutes. Morgan’s final comments in the Forbes article struck me as a particularly relevant idea for my students:
You must rehearse. You don’t want to jump the couch. Adrenaline plays funny tricks on the mind, and you need to establish the muscle memory of a full, physical rehearsal in order to give your body something remembered to do when the adrenaline kicks in. A mental run-through is not enough. You must rehearse. If find yourself arguing with me, or yourself, giving reasons why you don’t need to rehearse, that’s a red public speaking flag. Professionals rehearse. Amateurs jump the couch. So rehearse. Please.
While reading this, I couldn’t help but think about how often my students resist and argue with me that practice makes their presentations robotic, that they are great at improvisation, and that they will just “wing it.” I teach my students to present in the Pecha Kucha style. We watch my PK, not because I want to regale them with tales of my awesomeness, but because I want them to see that I don’t ask them to do anything I wouldn’t do myself.
Watching myself is torturous, but helps me become a stronger speaker. When will I stop saying the word “now”?
As we watched my speech yesterday, one student marveled at my ability to synchronize my slides and my verbal points. He said it felt like he was watching a magic show. My response: no magic, just hours and hours of practice. Great speech is not magic–great speech is systematic, logical, methodical, and critical. Great speech takes great practice! Okay, so how should we practice? I’ve gathered a few of my favorite people’s advice on practice as a starting point.
From Dr. Nick Morgan, “Seven ways to rehearse”
From Nancy Duarte, “10 ways to prepare for a TED-format talk”
From Garr Reynolds, “Steve Jobs and the art of the swordsman”
From Felix Jung, “Guide to Making a Pecha Kucha Presentation: Practicing”