Sunday, October 09, 2011

Why and How I Teach Writing, Part 4: Practicing

An unprepared teacher can’t fool even a kindergartner. Lecturers, professors, actors, or talk show hosts who think they can “call it in” when delivering a presentation will confront a bored, confused, or hostile audience. Even expert presenters need to practice, so I live by these six practice principles:
  • Allow enough practice time. Although I like to prepare for presentations just hours—and even minutes—before delivering them, I allow far more time days before the presentation. I have heard stage directors and actors say that they need one hour of rehearsal time for each minute of the play. Obviously, busy presenters just don’t have that kind of time. I do not keep a time formula for practice, but I do abide by this fundamental premise: Practice until I can do the whole thing by memory.
  • Time the presentation. This tip is critical. Time management problems happen in an instant; therefore, I break down the presentation by topic or activity in blocks of time. I then calculate the entire time and make additions and subtractions to conform to my allotted presentation time.
  • Select audience questions carefully. I want to make these questions challenging enough to engage the audience, easy enough not to intimidate them, and purposeful enough that I can reinforce my points. I practice my responses when getting the answer I want as well as the opposite.
  • Pilot the presentation. Since I am in a one-person business, I rarely get such an opportunity. However, I never pass on it if it is available, and I don’t shy from asking friends or colleagues to sit through at least the part of my presentation where feedback would be helpful. They appreciate my respecting their opinion and never hesitate to tell me what they think I’m doing wrong—and most often they’re right.
  • Visualize the audience. I try to think of myself as an audience. What would I want from the presentation if I need it for my job? If I were attending grudgingly only because my boss required me to? If I were a know-it-all? If I had a political axe to grind? If I were attending with a friend and saw it as an opportunity to socialize? If I were a slow learner? A fast learner? A nonnative speaker just learning the language? Someone fixated on my smartphone? I have had all these sorts in my presentations, so I try to strike a balance that addresses such a mixed bag.
  • Practice for contingencies. These include the projection screen being unavailable, gaining time because the audience moves quicker through the presentation than expected, losing time because of fire drills or tornado evacuations, getting the wrong location or the wrong time, being asked at the last minute to reduce or expand my presentation time, and dealing with disruptive people. All of these and more have happened to me, so I remind myself that I need fillers for expanded time and shortcuts for contracted time.
One final point: Practice is a great way to overcome stage fright. Many a panic-stricken presenter has told me, “I’m glad I practiced; it was the only thing that got me through.”