How to Rehearse for a Major Speech: 5 Best Practices
If you have a major speech coming up, it’s incumbent on you to rehearse and rehearse well.
Whether it’s a keynote at a major conference, a critical presentation to your board of directors, or a major speech to the public, the stakes are high and you need to get it right.
These are five best practices that I’ve used and that I’ve seen work for my clients and students.
1. Get a Coach
Get support from a coach or trainer. Ideally someone who has worked with others in similar high-stakes situations many times.
Your coach could be a professional coach who specializes in communication and public speaking coaching.
But he or she could also be someone in your organization who is experienced and offers great insight.
Susan Cain, who gave one of the most popular TED talks of all time, did multiple sessions with an acting coach.
Above all you have to know that your coach or advisor will give you honest and unvarnished feedback.
This is important because if you underperform, the audience will not let you know. The host or organizer of the event will not tell you. (Unless you totally bomb it and make it an utter catastrophe, which rarely happens.)
People will almost never give you negative feedback. They are uncomfortable doing so, they don’t want to offend, and frankly they just don’t care about your personal and professional growth.
But they will fail to be moved by your speech nonetheless.
If you have bosses that are invested in your professional growth and performance, then great.
But for the most part, if you are not utterly bombing, then people will say “you’re fine/ good enough” and will not push you to excel.
And if you are not pushing to be your absolute best, then you will not make the full impact you are capable of.
That’s why a coach, or someone who is really invested in your success, can be so crucial.
2. Rehearse the Speech in Front of Different Groups of People
Two things are critical here: (1) getting practice in front of real, live audiences of flesh-and-blood human beings, and (2) getting feedback from a variety of voices.
The rule of thumb with rehearsal is: make your rehearsal as close as possible to your ultimate speech in every way possible.
That means, as you rehearse, try to approximate everything you will actually encounter at your major speech, including:
- The type of clothes you will wear: casual, formal, or semi-formal?
- The format: panel discussion vs slide presentation vs short-form monologue vs long-form monologue, etc
- The size of the venue: will it be a conference room with 20 seats or an auditorium with 300?
- The audience demographics: will they be mostly men or women? mostly 20-somethings or 50+? race and ethnic background? native citizens or foreign-born?
- The professional background of the audience: from your industry or from a variety of different fields?
In surveys, pollsters constantly seek to get a “representative sample” of their target population.
The same thing should apply to your rehearsals.
The “perfect” rehearsal scenario would be where you give the exact speech you are planning to give, to a group that is exactly like your target audience, under the exact same conditions.
But getting all of those perfect conditions is usually impossible.
So the next best thing is to simulate or approximate those conditions as closely as you can.
You will thank yourself on the day of your event.
3. Give Minor Speeches in the Time Period Leading up to Your Major Speech
And use portions of your final speech during these events.
Not only do these smaller, lower-stakes events help you to practice and get exposure to crowds, they also help you test our your content.
Standup comedians have done this for generations. They will typically test out new material in small comedy clubs, see what hits and what doesn’t, and then refine their act.
By the time they do a major multi-city tour or a gig on a national TV show, they have refined and perfected their material. It’s not a big mystery what the audience will respond to.
And it shouldn’t be a secret for your major speech either.
Seek out small meetup groups, professional associations, internal networking groups inside your firm, or even organizations that are not directly related to your industry.
Any small opportunity to stand up in front of a group of people is an opportunity for you to practice and get better.
4. Rehearse in Front of a Camera and Watch Yourself
Watching yourself, as an audience member, is a totally different experience than giving the speech.
Whenever you rehearse in front of a group, record yourself.
When you rehearse alone, record yourself.
Look at the difference in how you present in front of people, versus on your own.
Are you persuaded by your own delivery?
Do you have any annoying or distracting habits?
What moments of the speech are most impactful and effective? Why are they powerful? How can you get more of that?
If you’re uncomfortable watching yourself on video, just remember two things.
First, every single person is uncomfortable watching themselves (and there are actual psychological reasons for that).
And second, you’re the only one who has not seen yourself from the outside. So you’re not seeing anything that everyone else you’ve ever met hasn’t been seeing for years.
5. Watch Other Great Speeches
Choose speeches and presentations from people that you think are really good.
And then analyze those speeches closely.
What exactly is it that makes them so good? How do they move their bodies? Where do they increase or decrease their vocal pitch? What effect does that have?
How do they begin a story? How do they end it? What details do they include in their stories and what do they leave out?
How do they present data and statistics?
Almost all great speakers have had professional training, tons of experience in the public eye, or both.
So don’t just passively watch them. Closely study them and you will discover a wealth of insights and actionable tactics.