What’s the one thing that makes the biggest impact on your presentation success?

We all fear our business and professional narrative—everything we say—won’t meet expectations; the expectations of the audience, event organizers, bosses, or our colleagues. Indeed, we are social animals and fear rejection more than anything, since we survive only through inclusion in communities.

This fear is legitimate and understandable. Presentation without fear does not exist, even for the most experienced public speakers, because a presentation is mainly a social interaction. And the way to overcome the fear is through testing, adjusting, and rehearsing your presentation properly, with an audience.

But what do most of us do to check through and rehearse our presentations?

We look at our slide deck and check the flow of ideas or we read the text we’ve prepared. It all happens while sitting in silence alone in a room, maybe reading aloud to hear how it sounds as we read it.

This is not the way to assess a presentation’s main impact or to determine how our audience will engage with and value our presentation.

Why is this not a valid test?

Consider this: At some point in your life, you may have been introduced to theatre by reading one of the great plays of Shakespeare or Molière. How was your reading experience? If you’re like me, you were disappointed. From reading alone, many of us struggle to experience the genius in the text. But when we see it on a stage, it’s a completely different experience; when we watch the actors perform, we appreciate the play’s greatness. The best plays are unimpressive in reading (at least to amateurs like me) but are powerful and engaging when acted onstage.

And let’s consider film and television productions.

Hollywood screenwriters have long complained that they are asked to write screenplays in a way that creates excitement for the producers reading them, so that they’ll decide to finance the movie. But when actors read the screenplay, they complain that it doesn’t work for them. In spite of their talent and desire, the scenes sound fake. This explains why so many movies are unsuccessful.

What then makes great movie and theatrical productions work? Well, they have numerous read-aloud sessions with actors to adjust the script until it sounds right. Screenplays are changed even while shooting and then again in the editing room. With very few exceptions, no screenplay or theatrical production is created behind a desk and performed unchanged. Even one-man shows, where actors are authors of their own scripts, are created through rehearsals and under the supervision of a director.

In my practice as a speakers coach, I often receive key-note texts for assessment, and I confess it is sometimes with reluctance that I read them without the benefit of hearing them. Usually after reading I have concerns. And then, during the first in-person session, I always ask my client to read it to me. At that time, many of my concerns vanish (although it’s also true that other concerns usually emerge!) The point is that even for a professional speakers coach, reading the text of a speech is not a true, valid means of predicting its impact.
The lessons for us from the theatrical world are these:

Never judge your presentation by silently reading the text or screening a slide deck. Never submit your presentation text or slide deck (alone) in order to get feedback.

The one thing that will have the biggest impact on your success is this:

Rehearse your presentation out loud (preferably with at least one person as a test audience) and record your voice, then listen to assess your performance. Of course, ideally you may want to film yourself so that you can assess the entire package: How supportive versus distractive is your slide deck? How’s your body language?

  • If you help with or supervise a colleague’s presentation, have that colleague read it aloud for you.
  • Don’t wait until you have finalized your presentation to test it. In my practice, we rehearse and adjust as early as possible in the creation process, even from the first, partial draft. This is the only way to judge what we have created, how much content we have, how much time it takes, its likely impact, where to focus on improvements, and other considerations. With early drafts, we test and adjust with voice recording only, then later videotaped for a more global analysis.
  • Attempting to time your presentation by calculating the number of words divided by average reading speed will give you an incorrect estimate, as will timing your presentation while reading in silence or alone. The only proper time estimate is determined through rehearsing with one person in the audience, because that single presence is enough to create some social stress. This stress makes you speak faster at the beginning, and then after 3 to 4 minutes creates memory problems that in turn creates more pauses, which all impacts your timing.

​Remember that your primary impacts are (a) what people perceive to be your motivation for speaking and (b) what key message or main insight they take from your presentation. Getting proper feedback is the topic for another article, but when debriefing with your test audience, do focus the discussion on those global impacts to prevent suggestions on micro-improvements.

What is the impact of proper rehearsals on your visibility and influence?

Here’s an interesting fact: When I ask TEDx organizers or public relations/conference organizers to identify their biggest challenge with their events, they tell me it’s that they can’t predict which presentations will succeed. Most of them can’t compel speakers to send rehearsal videos in advance, nor can they cancel speakers who fail to provide rehearsal videos, so they are left with outlines and slide decks. In their experience, “outlines and slide decks are useless to predict the impact of a presentation.” The most important, yet unknown and unpredictable factor is the speaker’s delivery. So organizers solve the problem by selecting speakers who have performed well in the past; choosing the known quantity, the good and predictable presenters, over speakers who may have innovative ideas but no past record or evidence of delivering great presentations.

Those who speak well have more visibility and influence. They put more work into rehearsing and testing their presentations than others do. If you want to be more visible and influential, you need to prove you can deliver good, or even better, great talks. And this starts with becoming aware of the impact of your presentation. It starts with proper rehearsing and testing.

If you’d like help making this entire process easier, more comfortable, and completely results-focused, please contact me.

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