Rehearsing Your Presentations

There is always a huge temptation to skip the rehearsal of your speech and decide to “Wing it.” I’ve fallen into that trap many times. It’s so easy because you look at the time that you have to practice and it seems easier just to write a few bullet notes and hope for the best. The temptation is even greater if you are pretty good at winging speeches. Not only do you not have time, but you know that you can get by, but there is where the problem lies.

I’m OK at winging it. I would never call myself a great extemporaneous speaker. I would never even call myself a good one. During Table Topics and speech evaluations, I get the job done and that’s about it, so I have a pretty good reason for rehearsing my speeches beforehand.  What about those who are good at winging it. How much incentive is there for them to rehearse. On the surface, it may seem like there isn’t any. However, Michael Port briefly took up this subject on episode 82 of his podcast, “Steal the Show.” On that show, he pointed out that some people rely on winging it almost every time, but he also pointed out that even for these people, practice and rehearsal is the difference between a good presentation and a great one.  As John Molidor, President of the National Speakers Association said in a recent interview, “If you have expertise and no eloquence, you’re probably a college professor.”

Another great incentive for those great at winging it is all about delivery. For me, my performance in a speech is directly tied to how much I rehearse. Like Michael Port pointed out, I can take an OK performance, add two weeks of rehearsal time and turn in a great performance. Also, rehearsal shows respect for your audience. If you go up and just simply try to transfer information, the audience quickly becomes bored and turns you off. However, with rehearsal, you are able to put a lot of thought into your delivery which the audience appreciates. Somewhere on a subconscious level, I believe the audience appreciates the amount of thought you invested into them.

I spoke to a blessed speaker who was able to wing all of his speeches. He told me that all he does is write out a few bullet notes on what he wants to say and then goes up on stage and deliver his speech. I had heard him speak before and he is very good. I asked him if he would consider rehearsing, and he didn’t like the idea of rehearsal, because he felt that it would make his speeches sound … well, rehearsed. That is a real concern, but I wanted to point out that he may sound rehearsed if he memorized the speech word for word, but if he followed the advice of some of the great speaking coaches I mentioned in my last post, he wouldn’t sound rehearsed at all. In fact if this exciting dynamic speaker took the time to rehearse his delivery and think deeply about what he was saying, he would wind up turning in performances that would be out of this world.


Memorizing Your Speech

One of the most asked questions in public speaking has been, “Should I memorize my speeches word for word?” This is a good question, because actors memorize their lines and they are able to make sometimes millions for what they do. It’s easy for us to decide that we should memorize our speeches word for word as well.

I fell into this camp for years. A major reason I wanted to memorize my speeches was because what I wrote out was exactly what I wanted to say. I wanted to make sure that I, not only got my message right, but the nuances as well. I’ve heard experts say that some of the reasons you should not memorize is that when you lose your place, you’ll get confused and will have a harder time recovering. You will also have a hard time grasping at the words that you’ve scripted causing you to look down or have a blank stare as you try to remember. I haven’t had these problems, because as long as I rehearsed the speech enough, those problems disappeared.

However, I did have one problem that made me think there had to be a better way. Actors sound natural when they give their lines during a performance, because they’ve had years of training to help them. I’ve competed in speech contests many times, but I need many more years of training to be able to make the memorized performances seem completely natural. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I’m too far off with my performance, but it could be better and I just haven’t been able to get over that hump.

I came across the article, “Should You Memorize Your Toastmasters Speech,” written by the Public Speaking and Life Coach, Reid Walley which helped me put things into perspective. Reid went to the very best speakers in Toastmasters, the world champions. He found something very interesting. They all advocated memorization … sort of. They all called it internalization and there is a difference. They recommend starting with a script which they broke down into bullet notes. They practiced from those bullet notes until they could give the speech smoothly.

Here’s the difference. They “memorized” the speech, but not word for word. In fact, the way they practiced, they may give it slightly differently each time. This allowed them to keep the speech fresh and appear spontaneous. Many public speaking coaches outside of Toastmasters give the same advice although they may disagree on how much we should rehearse. Gary Genard tells us not to practice any less than three times and no more than five times. He tells us that this will help us keep the speech fresh and sounding spontaneous. Patricia Fripp tells us we should practice until we can give the speech smoothly and TED speaking coaches tell us to practice up to two-hundred times. My personal feeling is that you should try all of them in the safety of your local Toastmasters club and go with the one that works best for you. After all, each of these coaches are probably telling us what works best for them.

Eye Contact: Some More Tips

Just getting comfortable with looking into your audience’s eyes is not enough to command their attention to your maximum ability. An unexperienced speaker may dart from person to person throughout a room and, although they do connect with each person, it may not be to the extent they want. In this post are some tips which can help you get all of the attention you need during your presentation. I came across one article by Jeremy Donovan of Speaking Sherpa. I encourage you to read “10 Public Speaking Tips for Making Eye Contact,” here.

One piece of advice I have heard is that you need to connect with each person in the room. I understand where the people who give this advice are coming from and I know what they are trying to help you accomplish, but I don’t entirely agree. Assuming you’re talking to a small group, you should have looked at each and every person in the room by the end of your presentation. Some have called it, “Spreading the love.” The problem with this advice is it’s exhausting trying to give your presentation and keep tabs on everyone you’ve shared eye contact with. I am not talking about very small groups of six or eight. Once you get to twelve to fifteen audience members, it starts to be too much work. I feel the energy spent on “Spreading the love,” would be better spent on trying to keep the interest of a few people and let their enthusiasm help hold the attention of everyone around them for you.

This is what I prefer to do. During the speech, I pick out the four or five people that are most interested in my presentation. What happens is those audience members will remain interested as long as I am truly connecting with them. Their reaction and interest will influence the people around them and before too long, the audience becomes dynamic and energetic. At the same time, I can watch for changes in interest and emotion and make any necessary adjustments.

Another piece of advice I’ve heard is that we should look at one person until you have completed a point and then go on to the next person. For the most part this is good advice, however, especially in a smaller audience, you have to be careful that you are not looking at one person for too long. Toastmasters International recommends looking at one person for three to five seconds. How they came up with that time is that it is the average for you to make one point or utter one sentence. The problem is that sometimes it takes more than three to five seconds to make a point. I would prefer to listen to my inner voice. I will start looking at a new person with the full intention of staying with them through that whole sentence. Usually that is what happens. In the case of a longer sentence or point, my inner voice, usually says something like, “What – you have a crush on that guy? Move on!” (Apparently, my inner voice grew up in South Philadelphia.) At which point I will move on.

Eye Contact: How to Start

Quite possibly the single hardest thing for any new public speaker to learn is eye contact. As matter of fact it’s so hard that a lot of bad advice has turned up throughout the years. Possibly the most well-known bad piece of advice is to look just over the heads of your audience in the back of the room. The argument is that it looks like you’re looking them in the eye, but the fact is that the people in the front three-quarters of the room see you looking at a point behind them and the people in the last quarter of rows will know something is wrong, because they will not be connecting with you on a subconscious level.

I’ve had a few people ask me for advice on how to train themselves to look into the eyes of the audience, and I sympathize with them. Being a recovering shy person myself, I went through a very long struggle trying to get myself to engage with my audience with eye contact. When someone asks me for advice, the first thing I tell them is that it’s a process. The first thing you need to do is feel comfortable in your own public speaking skin. This can only be done by getting in front of people and speaking. After you’ve had some successful speeches and also made a few mistakes and realize that you’re still alive, you’ll begin to feel more confident and looking into your audience’s gaze will become easier.

However, in the mean time you have to make the audience feel like you’re attempting eye contact with them. I discovered how to do this by accident. When I first joined Toastmasters, the first thing I was taught was that I had to make I eye contact with the audience. There were no other options. Before I gave my Ice Breaker speech I watched several evaluators pick off speakers for lack of eye contact. When I gave my Ice Breaker, I became extremely nervous.  Almost unconsciously I blurred my vision. Instantly, I realized that I couldn’t see any of the eyes of my audience and I immediately calmed down and felt comfortable. From then until I began to get more confidence I blurred my vision, so I didn’t have to look into my audience’s eyes, but at the same time they thought I was.

Now, veteran Toastmasters and other speaking professionals are pulling their hare out, screaming, “How could you give such terrible advice!” And they would be right. Eye contact means eye contact. The fact is, when I was blurring my vision, I was meeting others’ gaze, but I wasn’t making the subconscious connection. However, when you are fighting stage fright as a new speaker, there really isn’t much more you can do. So, the last piece of the puzzle is this; when you start feeling more confident, spend a part of each speech without blurring your vision. You will begin to find that your tolerance will rise a little more each time and you will achieve that highly coveted eye contact before you know it.

Eye Contact: Why?

Try this experiment. Call your dog. Where does he look? More than likely, your dog will look toward your eyes. Now try one more experiment. Get your dog’s attention and then just stare at him. Don’t say anything and don’t do anything. What happens? Chances are your dog will begin to feel uncomfortable. You’ll see that he will look away from you as if he is in trouble, or maybe he’ll begin to whine like my dog did.

What all of this proves is that eye contact is universal among all creatures. It also proves that eye contact is extremely powerful. So much can be said with just a look. Even your dog understands that just staring at him is an extremely aggressive act.

This is why using eye contact correctly in your presentations is so important. You use your voice, and perhaps some visual aids, to communicate your message, but when you make eye contact with your audience, you are letting them into your emotional world. Eye contact is so ingrained in all living creatures that our subconscious mind interprets the many emotions displayed in a speakers eyes.

Here are two examples.

  1. During an experiment done at Cornell’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, the conductors altered the rabbit on a Trix box so it was looking straight at the adult subjects. When two boxes where shown to the subjects, they were more likely to choose the boxes with the character looking straight at them.
  2. An experiment done by the University of Chicago and University of Maryland, twenty men where shown two identical pictures of an attractive woman. The only difference between the photos was the pupils were artificially enlarged on one. When asked which picture seemed more attractive, the majority of the men picked the one with the enlarged pupils, although the vast majority of those men couldn’t explain why.

Through these and many other experiments, we see that eye contact works on a subconscious level and is extremely powerful when used in the public speaking arena. The audience feels that the speaker is more confident, authoritative, honest and trustworthy when they meet their gaze.

Eye contact also helps the speaker. If you are speaking to a group and not using eye contact, your field of vision will not be concentrated, opening you up to any and all distractions around the room. If you are concentrated on a set of eyes, the likelihood of being distracted is diminished significantly, because your field of vision will be concentrated. You will tend to feel more confident, although this may not be the case for a beginner. When a speaker is not used to speaking to groups, he may feel a little uncomfortable looking into other people’s eyes, but after some practice he will become more comfortable with it and as a result will have a very powerful tool in his public speaking tool box.

The Notes Debate

In Project 3 of the Toastmasters Competent Communicator manual, we are told “Strive not to use notes.” With this one statement and whether they intended to or not, Toastmasters International has entered the growing debate among speakers around the world; the debate over whether we as speakers should use notes during our presentations. New speakers in Toastmasters are almost always tethered to their notes and as they gain more confidence, they become less dependent on them. The debate comes into Toastmasters at Project 3 as the fifth bullet point under “Your Assignment.”

There are two sides to this debate. One says that not using notes is a relatively recent development in public speaking. The proponents of using notes point out some of the best speakers in history used notes. Abraham Lincoln Held an envelope with bullet notes written on it during the Gettysburg Address, Winston Churchill was famous for writing “Stage directions” to himself on a copy of his speech, even today politicians and TV personalities use Teleprompters.

Opponents of using notes give us two very good reasons. The first and, as it would seem, the main reason is that it hinders the speaker from making eye contact with the audience. After all, if you’re looking at your notes, then you’re not making eye contact and eye contact is essential to connecting with your audience. The second reason is notes give the impression that you have not prepared for the presentation.

Taking the second reason first, let me ask the obvious question. If you don’t use notes and you get stuck, how prepared do you look then? A reader may say, “If you prepared enough, you wouldn’t get stuck,” This is a very fare point, but it’s not always the case. Unforeseen circumstances do happen. This is the reason why I take a third position in this debate; the Both-And position.

My opinion is that we should “Strive” to not use notes, but we shouldn’t kill our public speaking reputation over it. Commit your bullet points to memory. There are many cool ways you can do it. I came across this video with Mike Michaelowicz witch shows you one way to memorize a speech in five minutes. After you’ve committed your speech to memory, practice it as much as possible. This second point becomes difficult for those of us who are not retired and have families, so I’ve added one more step. Unless you are absolutely sure that you have all of the bullet points down cold, write them out in large print, so you can read them from about six to eight feet away. The bullet points should take up a maximum of two sheets that you can lay side by side on a lectern or table. Then you can simply look down for a second or two to find your place and move on with your presentation. One important point to remember is that with the large print, you have no reason to draw attention to your notes by picking them up.

We as Toastmasters strive to not use notes at all, but the fact is if we need them, we need them and it’s OK as long as we use them correctly. If you follow the simple instructions above, you’ll be able to keep the all-important eye contact with your audience and also have the confidence you need to remember your speech.



The Many Facets of Toastmasters: Listening

Listening is not an immediately obvious benefit of Toastmasters, but it’s easy to realize when you think about it. After all, someone has to listen to other members speak. However, our listening practice does not stop at merely listening to speeches.

There are several roles in every Toastmasters meeting which are entirely dedicated to listening. The Ah-Counter and grammarian must listen to every word spoken throughout the meeting and pick out every filler word and violation of grammar as well as the extraordinary uses of words and phrases. The evaluator must listen to their assigned speech closely enough to be able to pick out what made the speech understandable and clear as well as parts that may need work. The General Evaluator must also listen to the entire meeting to pick out what made that day’s meeting effective and what could make the meeting and club better in the future. Although, you could argue the Timer’s job is not entirely about listening, there is a definite listening aspect to it. If the Timer falls asleep at the switch the club will end up with an inaccurate record of the speech and Table Topic times.

There is a very strong emphasis on listening in Toastmasters because Toastmasters International realizes that listening is a major skill, perhaps the major skill, needed for leadership. Many of the greatest leaders in the world were known for their listening skills. There is a story about George Washington and how he used to sit and listen to his officers argue over possible courses of action to be taken during the Revolutionary War. After everything was said, Washington would take everything he listened to both sides say and then make his decision.

In our daily lives, listening is no less important. According to an article written by Dawn Rosenberg McKay, a career planning coach, in 1991 the US Department of Labor identified listening as one of the three foundational skills essential for those entering the work force. In her December 26, 2015 article on, “Listening Skills: Why You Need to be an Active Listener,” she also pointed out that your listening skills don’t necessarily depend on your ability to hear, because each are separate abilities. “It is possible to have one but not the other. Someone who is hearing impaired can be a great listener if he or she pays attention to the information someone conveys to them regardless of how it is being communicated.”

In Toastmasters we can learn how to become great listeners ourselves. We have every opportunity to do so. With our new skills, we can become better leaders and better followers and we can improve all of the relationships we have, both personal and professional.