Article Category: Speaker Habits

Stop Rehearsing! 3 Critical Things to Do Before Your Speech


AuditoriumWhen scheduled to speak, you may be tempted to review your notes or slides right up to the last minute. Last minute cramming like this is rarely of any value. Instead, this article explains three much more important things you should be doing to prepare.

Cramming For Your Speech to the Last Minute

I once had a colleague who began preparing his talk the night before he spoke. Because of this, he worked late into the night and in the morning on his slides. It was common for him to be rearranging PowerPoint slides minutes before his name was called. When he stood to speak, there was a “deer in the headlights” reaction as he noticed his venue and audience for the first time.

I previously wrote about the speech preparation process — follow that advice and don’t be the deer in the headlights.

But, adequate speech preparation isn’t always enough. Years ago, although my presentation was ready, I would still retreat to a quiet place at the venue and spend the time right up to my speech “mentally preparing.” Last minute cramming was not productive. In fact, it probably made me more nervous that I would otherwise have been. More recently, I have realized that there are three much more important activities to keep you busy from the time you arrive at the venue to the time you speak.

Activity #1 — Study the Venue Logistics

Whenever possible, arrive at the venue while the room is still empty. This is especially important if the venue is new to you. Now is the time to solve any issues that might arise with the physical space. There are many issues to work out depending on the venue and the nature of your talk. For starters, here are a few to consider:

  • Acquaint yourself with the speaking area.
  • Do a audio check if the room warrants it.
  • Plan where you’ll place props, notes, or supplies before, during, and after their use.
  • Determine where the projector, screen, whiteboard, or flip chartwill be relative to you. If your audience cannot see your visual aids, they will not connect with your message.
    • If these items cannot be moved, plan where you need to stand to avoid being an obstruction.
    • If these items can be moved, move them to the optimal locations for visibility from the audience.

Activity #2 — Meet Your Audience

An inexperienced speaker waits until they are introduced for their presentation before beginning to establish rapport with the audience. An experienced speaker, on the other hand, understands that rapport can be built from the moment you arrive at the venue.

  • Mingle with your audience.
  • Don’t let your ego interfere. Acting like a prima donna will damage your credibility with the audience.
  • Ask questions and listen to the answers. You will often be able to pick up nuggets of information that you can integrate into your talk.
  • Be interested and genuine. Not only will your audience like you better, but you will be more positive going into your talk, and your performance will show it.

Activity #3 — Watch, Listen, and Participate in the Event Agenda

I’ve seen speakers who appear intent on making a grand entrance no earlier than their scheduled time. (Occasionally, this cannot be helped due to scheduling…) They are missing a great opportunity to form bonds of common experience with the audience.

  • Listen to other speakers.
    • Does their message overlap with yours? How should you change your speech?
    • Is their message complementary in some way? How can you accentuate this?
  • What themes or trends are present at the event?
  • What humorous things have happened? Can you incorporate humor by referring back to them?
  • What is the mood of the audience in talks preceding yours? If the energy in the room is low, you may need to incorporate elements to pick it up.

Study the venue, meet your audience, and participate in the agenda. These three activities will reduce your nervousness and improve your performance much more than any last-minute cramming.

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Comments icon17 Comments

  1. Great point, Andrew. I used to think there was something “wrong” with the way I prepared for a talk, because I didn’t use all the breathing, relaxation and visualization techniques that were recommended.

    Then I learned that there are two kinds of pre-performance rituals: one where you actively focus on the event by visualizing yourself speaking, etc., and one where you disassociate yourself from the event, as in distracting yourself with music, talking to the audience, and other activities that are not related to your speech (or race, or performance).

    Whew! Now I enjoy my preparation rituals and don’t feel guilty about them.

    1. Andrew Dlugan says:

      Good point, Lisa. While I like to stretch out my body (my neck in particular) before speaking, I have not adopted the strict relaxation and visualization techniques you refer to. Yet, I know some great speakers who swear by those techniques. It’s a very personal thing.

  2. Lee Potts says:

    I can’t agree strongly enough with Activity #1. Many, many of the problems that I’ve seen during presentations could be traced back to the speaker showing up at the last minute and assuming that everything will work perfectly and that nothing will need adjustments.

    If a speaker arrives early, there’s time to recover from the kind of problems that happen before your talk even begins: computer not booting, dead projector bulb, missing flip chart, etc.

    1. Andrew Dlugan says:

      It’s tragic when those types of problems are not handled before the talk. It causes frustration for the audience and cranks up the stress for the speaker. The damage is worse if the time wasted (e.g. 5 minutes) eats into a short talk (e.g. 20 minutes).

  3. Eric says:

    Hey Andrew, a very appropriate and timely blog entry. I believe this is one question that countless of speakers have asked. I took the liberty of adding another 8 more. Do check it out and give your comments. :)

    1. Andrew Dlugan says:

      Eric:
      It’s great that you’ve added to the conversation.

  4. I very much agree with the three tips on how to spend the minutes before your speech. All are helpful for taking the focus off you and putting it on the audience – whom you must connect with to be successful even if it means changing some things you’d planned!

  5. julie70 says:

    Wonderful ideas, I’ll try next time! (next week before speaking at TMs)

  6. Jonathan says:

    Timely advice about listening to other speakers. I have only seen it a few times, where speakers use illustrations or points that were already used by a previous speaker.

    A skillful speaker will allow for this possibility and either mention that they are looking again at the info or do a hat trick by providing other information not provided.

    Of course, you can only do this if you hear the speakers before you.

  7. Andrew,
    Love this article, great summary with useful tips. The 3 Activities give clear direction to the speaker. This type of “advance work” can set both the stage and and the speaker for success. Must be serendipity, I have a similar article scheduled to be published 1Q10 on the same topic that includes an on-site checklist.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Nice post Andrew. If there are other speakers before you, I would be sure to (discreetly) take notes on any information they present that you can reference and use, especially if you know they are covering material that is similar to yours.

    Oh, and don’t over estimate the value of practicing your speech in front of a much smaller audience before hand. A colleague or spouse can be a great help in preparation and, having given the speech at least once to others, you should be more relaxed and ready to go for the big day.

  9. Brian says:

    What excellent advice! Andrew’s tips resonate very well with me. As professional speakers we know our subject matter. The last minute prep should be about linking the speech to that specific audience. I try to get some humour in during the first two minutes to get the audience to laugh and relax…

  10. Edgar Bahala says:

    Dear Andrew, I recently had a talk on “How to Present Visual Aids” to about 20 prospective speakers on cooperative topics. I prepared for 3 days even late into the nights! I was exhausted. But I did had the time to be with the audience 30 minutes before the talk and I must say, that helped me a lot. I became relaxed and the listeners were also relaxed. But that was, to me, a great lesson on not cramming on your preparation. It helps to be ready always. I think what can be done is not to wait for invitation. We can prepare everyday even for one hour on topics for which we claim we are good! Is that a sound idea?

    1. Andrew Dlugan says:

      Absolutely. There are many opportunities to speak, and it helps to have a speech or two “in your back pocket” loosely prepared which you can deliver at any time. These speeches may not be your best ever, but you will be able to provide value for your audience and stimulate discussion.

  11. media_training says:

    I agree with you Andrew. Do we want to shock our audience into action or assure them that all will be well? To me that is the question every leaders in the world should ask to themselves.

    I was unhappy reading same subjects repeatedly and was pretty disapointed by the lack of precision on these ones, then I found your glorious site of Speaking and presentaion skills that I just simply bookmarked.

  12. Activity #2 “Meet Your Audience” is so often neglected. I find that meeting people before I speak calms my nerves and makes the audience real. It is easy to depersonalize an audience and treat them like a group of strangers. Meeting people before the event changes all that and gives me keen insight into the “people” in my audience. Andrew thanks for so many great articles. I discovered your site recently and I’m spending way too much time here. Keep up the great work!

  13. incorporate what others speakers have said into your presentation. It can add some great levity! I use a mind map and therefore no notes

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