At Least 3 Real-Time, Full-Dress Rehearsals

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Many speakers get up on stage and just “wing it”. It might be due to poor planning, other obligations, travel contraints, or simply because no one has ever explained why and how you should rehearse for a tech talk. Throw in some hardware components, for a live demo and the risk of looking like an novice speaker, slides up a couple of notches. Break out of that white-knuckle-inducing old way and start rehearsing like a real pro.

You need to rehearse a minimum of three times, recommends Damian Conway, a nationally recognized speaker and programming luminary. You should attend his “Presentation Aikido” talk, if you can.

I’d add that you should take your rehearsal to the next level using the same props, slides, hardware and gestures you’ll use on stage…in real-time. In other words, do the speech just as you’d do it in front of the real audience. If you get to your venue a few days early, try to talk the room tech into letting you hook up your notebook and make some passes through your talk to the empty seats. Techs will sometimes let you do that after the normal sessions have ended.

Real-time rehearsals address several issues:

During the first full-on pass through the presentation, you’ll likely discover bottlenecks, rough spots, and parts of the speech that might be out of order. You can then rework your slides and cadence to fine tune your “show”. The problems will be immediately apparent. Resist the urge to stop and fix them. Instead, go through the whole thing making mental notes. If you stop and fix it, the first time through, you’ll also never have a base-line time for the whole speech.

That brings up the next point. Make sure to use a stopwatch or app on your smartphone to precisely time your rehearsal. Of course, you should time your actual presentation, as well. The last thing conference organizers, audience members and the next speaker want, is for your talk to run long. I put in a little cushion of 5 to 10 minutes. You decide what will work for you. You’ll need sufficient time to pack up your gear and possibly herd fans out into the hallway for further discussions. Respect the next speaker and his audience by exiting quickly.

Going through the talk at least 3 times, firmly anchors your topics and transitions in your head. Once you lock in your thoughts, adjusting for interruptions, equipment malfunction, or distactions becomes a no-brainer, since you’ll know your talk cold. You’ll be so comfortable with the material, that you can literally start in the middle and go to the end, without missing a beat. To get to that level of confidence, may take 4, 6 or even 8 times. I’ve done that many before. Believe me it’s an investment in your success and ultimately your reputation in front of your audience.

A while back, I did a local talk and for various reasons, just went to the venue without a rehearsal. Halfway into the presentation, the slides froze on the screen and I had to go through a reboot. The reboot didn’t work, so I just continued without slides and demo’d the hardware. If I had rehearsed, I would have remembered that slides made from large graphics files sometimes caused a lockup on that machine. Compressing all the images to a reasonable file size would have eliminated the problem all-together. Now we know and shame on me!

Moral of the story. Rehearse like a pro and you’ll get pro results.

  • Pro Tip #1: If you bring an HDMI cable (or VGA cable), with your computer, you can rehearse using your hotel room’s big screen.
  • Pro Tip #2: Check the conference schedule and see if you can convince the meeting organizer to give you a slot with a long break just before or after your talk. Before gives you more time to set up your gear and work out any last-minute glitches. After, gives you a chance to loosen up and have a longer Q&A time with the audience.