Dress Rehearsals: Because Practice Makes Perfect


Friday mornings, my dog Amelia and I have a standing appointment with a course coordinator from the National Conservation Training Center. Truth be told, Amelia sleeps while Kristi and I do most of the work.

The work happens over the phone and on the internet, in Adobe Connect, with a PowerPoint, a handout, and a ton of scribbled notes on both ends. That’s what it takes for us to coordinate a 90-minute webinar that we’ve been producing for five years.

The webinar is interactive, with a small group of 18 students. We try to run it as much like an in-person class as possible, complete with small group sessions that Adobe calls “break-out rooms.”  Every webinar contains about 10 different layouts in Adobe Connect. The layouts allow us to move from a PowerPoint presentation to a reading example to a video to a break-out room, etc. We want all of that to happen smoothly, without a lot of time lag between screens or tech-speak between the two of us. That takes practice.

I would not dream of teaching a class unrehearsed any more than I would think of serving a roast raw. Good food cannot be easily digested unless it is well prepared.

Even when I teach courses in-person, without the intermediary of technology, I rehearse. I envision introducing the materials to participants unfamiliar with the material. I imagine the places the material will resonate and the times students might have questions. I talk my way through the course, in my head, in my car, or in my office (Amelia is a patient and sympathetic listener).

Of course, presentations are live events – spontaneous and attended by real people. You will always face an unplanned element. Participants will throw you questions to which you have no answer. Participants will not respond to what you thought was an interactive, engaging moment. Technology will fail.

These are not reasons to be unprepared but arguments to prepare better. Rehearsing allows you to be more flexible. You will feel more comfortable rearranging the material, holding questions until later in the presentation, or acknowledging that you do not have all the answers, yet.

Here are a few tips to make dress rehearsals part of your presentation preparation:

1) Start early. You can’t practice a presentation that has not been written. Start preparing early so you will have time to practice later.

2) Give yourself a hard deadline to finish presentation materials. It is tempting to continue working on your PowerPoint until the moment before you take the stage. Resist. You will be confronted with a PowerPoint that is unfamiliar to you.

If you are presenting on a Wednesday, Monday is the last day to tweak your presentation. If you present on Friday, Wednesday is the last day. You want at least one full day plus the day of the presentation to practice with your materials. You can make notes, but do not make changes.

3) Practice, practice, practice. Your work is not done when the PowerPoint is finished. Put that baby on the screen and talk your way through it. Take notes while you do so. Nobody wants to have a lecture read to them, but we also don’t like to see a speaker surprised by their own presentation.

4) Take notes and solicit feedback. Hopefully, you will be asked to give a presentation more than once. While you present, or as soon as possible after presenting, take notes. You may wish to develop a cheat sheet for yourself with symbols for speed up, slow down, cut, etc.

Later, reflect on the experience using both formal and informal feedback. Try to do so as objectively as possible. Remember, this is not about you; it is about how the audience responded to the content. Where did they do so positively? Where they did so negatively or not at all, what could you do differently?

Each of these suggestions will help you become a better presenter now and into the future. Okay, looks like Amelia is ready for her morning romp. Time to go. Please let me know if you enjoyed these ideas. And be sure to share any strategies you use.

Michelle Baker is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Sonia Chakrabarty

These were great tips! Thanks for sharing. I always try to record my presentation when I rehearse, so I can hear how I sound from an audience perspective.

Michelle Baker

That’s a good idea, Sonia. It can be painful to listen to myself, but it really helps to catch annoying verbal tics and identify places I need to speed up or slow down.

Hannah Moss

Such a good reminder. It’s so easy to skip the ‘dress rehearsal’ when you think you know your materials, but I’ve found that everytime I take a minute to run through my presentation beforehand, I do so much better. It’s just about making the time to do it! Tip #1 is a great suggestion