You picked a topic. You put together a speech. You prepared some notes. And if you’re wise, you also built in at least one full day (optimally several) to prepare and practice. But how can you be sure you’re filling that prep time productively?
I’ve seen practice advice that ranges from purposeful to pointless, but based on my experience as both a public speaker and a speech coach, I believe these 10 Do’s and Don’ts will make the biggest difference in the days, hours, and even minutes before your spotlight moment.
1 DO: Practice out loud. Effective public speaking practice is all about training your mind and your mouth to collaborate on conveying a point. Practicing the speech in your head may help you memorize it, but it won’t improve your ability to convey your points out loud, especially during critical transitions.
Because your mind and mouth need to get used to working as partners, effective practice means delivering your speech out loud. You don’t need to practice in front of a person, a mirror, or a camera, but you do need to speak clearly and not mumble your way through your message. The more you practice the interaction between your mind and mouth, the easier it will be to activate those mechanics when it’s your turn to speak.
2 DON’T: Practice in front of mirrors. How often do public speakers practice in front of mirrors and think, “I wonder if I’m making my point effectively?” The answer is never. We are more likely checking our hair, teeth, dress, or tie. We’ve all been trained since childhood to use mirrors exclusively to assess our appearance, which has little impact on our goal as presenters. Are you speaking with clarity and confidence? Your reflection has no clue.
3 DO: Tell friends and colleagues what to look for when you rehearse. When you practice your speech in front of a colleague, the feedback is often a useless compliment like “That was great!” or focused on something so inconsequential that the advice has no value. Even professional public speakers don’t always know how to assess other speakers.
Dress how you want to be perceived, not how you perceive yourself.
The goal of a presentation is to make a point effectively, so help your colleagues—and yourself—by directly asking them “What do you think my biggest point was?” If they answer correctly, you’re doing well. If they don’t, first tell them your point and ask if they heard it, then ask what they believe made it difficult to detect or understand. This feedback should arm you with several ways to emphasize and reinforce your message.
4 DO: Fuel up on food and sleep. Strong presentations require energy, and energy requires fuel in the form of food and sleep. You know this already, so don’t let your body down. Get eight hours of sleep. Have a satisfying breakfast. Caffeine up, but not too much. And put all that power behind your presentation so that you’re energized from first word to last.
5 DO: Scrutinize your speech. When you give a speech, the speech’s credibility is your credibility. If a fact is wrong, your reputation pays the price. Be sure to fact-check your speech not only when you finish it but every time you revise or add to it.
Correct grammar and syntax are also crucial in establishing your reputation. Some tips for copyediting a speech include changing the font or size of your text so it looks new when you review it, using spell-check and grammar-check programs, and using the “read aloud” feature of your word processing program or another text-to-speech program. You’ll be surprised how many improvements you can make when you hear your work read back to you.
Practice is key to delivering a great speech. Learn how to shine as a speaker by following these rehearsal tips in the video above.
6 DO: Pre-check the venue, podium, and microphone. When giving your presentation, the last thing you want to experience is a surprise. Days before the event, ask questions about the use of microphones and the presence of a podium or lectern. Just before you speak, check out the room and see where the audience is sitting—note if you can see them all from your speaking position, how close you are to them, and if you’ll have a stage or a platform. Often you need to make on-the-spot decisions about your surroundings; be ready to make them.
7 DON’T: Trust the person introducing you to do it right. Excellent presenters can be hampered by poor introductions, including ones that run too long, contain irrelevant or inaccurate information, or omit details that establish your qualification. The burden of avoiding those traps is as much on you as it is on the person introducing you.
Find your introducer before the event and make sure they know at least three facts, credits, or accomplishments that illustrate your competency. Those items don’t have to be entertaining or personal, but they do have to answer the question, Why is this presenter the best person to make this point?
8 DO: Dress for the occasion. You may have heard the phrase, Dress for the job you want, not the one you have. That’s good advice. The public speaking version goes, Dress how you want to be perceived, not how you perceive yourself. Typically, that means business casual or even more spiffy. You can never go wrong dressing up for the occasion because it underscores your commitment to making a professional—not to mention tasteful—impression.
9 DON’T: Improvise the Q&A. Many experts work hard on their presentations and practice repeatedly, only to cobble together responses during the Q&A that follows. Bad idea. Remember, success as a presenter hinges not only on what you know but how effectively your mind and mouth work in concert to present your points. That requires practice.
If a fact is wrong, your reputation pays the price.
You can practice by yourself or with a colleague to whom you’ve supplied questions but remember to practice out loud. Practicing in your head is a mental exercise, which would only make sense if you were delivering your presentation telepathically.
10 DO: Know your first and last sentences. For most speakers, knowing your speech means knowing it from about 15 seconds after you stand up to about 15 seconds before you sit down—perhaps from your first slide to your last—but much can go wrong during those initial and closing bookends, especially if either is sloppy.
The key to starting and ending strong is simple: Plan what you’re going to say, down to the word.
OPEN: “Good morning, my name is Joel, and I’m going to show you how changing your community can help change the world.”
CLOSE: “If we all work as one, we can indeed make the world a safer and more compassionate place.”
These lines are so brief that you can easily memorize them, so why not? Leaving them to chance can create a poor impression that can injure your entire presentation.
Still worried about your next speech? Hear additional tips from the author in the video above to help calm your nerves.
Joel Schwartzberg, CC, CL is the senior director of strategic and executive communications for a major national nonprofit in New York City, a presentations coach and author of Get to the Point! Sharpen Your Message and Make Your Words Matter.