Rehearsing a speech: Why and how

If you think rehearsing your speech is frivolous, self-indulgent, a waste of your time—think again.

If you’re fortunate enough to be asked to give a speech, you’ve been given a valuable gift: the time and attention of the people in your audience. People just as busy as you, who set their jobs and lives aside so they could listen to what you have to say. You owe it to them to say something worth hearing.

You also owe it to yourself. It’s fair to assume that most of the people in your audience have never met you, maybe never even heard of you. What kind of impression do you want to give them?

But let’s say you don’t care what people think of you. (Really?) There’s also a business case for being a great speaker: Your presentation can enhance your company’s brand…or not. Your choice.

So you’re going to rehearse, right? Seems to me I owe you some advice on how to do that.

Early in my career, my boss booked me a session with a speech coach. He figured I ought to know my job from both sides of the lectern. The coach handed me a text I’d never seen before, pointed a video camera at me, and listened. I’ve acted since I was a kid, so I figured I’d aced the exercise. I read fluidly, with lots of emphasis and tonal variation. Amazing!

When I finished, the coach asked me one question: “So what did you just talk about?”

I had no freaking clue.

So that’s the first rule of speech-making. It’s not just about reading the words; it’s about paying attention to what you’re saying. If you have to look at the speech text, don’t talk while you’re looking at it. Grab a phrase at a time, raise your head and talk to your audience. You want to aim for a little more flow than the sublime Ruth Bader Ginsburg when President (Bill) Clinton nominated her for the Supreme Court, but I’m guessing she hadn’t had a ton of time to rehearse. Still, this illustrates the technique very clearly.

But with enough rehearsing, you shouldn’t need to reference the text that frequently.

Best techniques for rehearsing

At the risk of overwhelming you, I’ll point to this list of seven rehearsal techniques, put together by the folks at Public Words. It combines techniques you might expect (“rehearse the content”) with some exercises more at home in the world of improv. If you’ve got the guts to go for it, I absolutely recommend “babbling through” the speech—delivering the content with no recognizable words. It forces you to think not just about what you intend to say but about the emotions associated with those words. A great way to enliven your speaking style.

In terms of getting familiar with the material, try writing it out—yes, I mean on paper. Handwriting gets the words into your brain through a different neural pathway than when you take them in visually.

Also, don’t just “stand and deliver” your speech, as you might in the actual setting. Try rehearsing the words while you’re walking the dog, doing chores, taking a shower. Move your body—do some exercises or just swing your arms from side to side. Obviously you’re not going to speak like that in front of your audience, any more than you would babble incoherently. But movement will put the words into your body in a more relaxed way. And when it’s time to deliver the real thing, your body will remember that and you won’t feel so wooden. Even if you’re scared.

And that’s the real reason to rehearse. Because when you know your material backwards and forwards, nothing that happens can throw you.