You now regularly practice walking around your house, speaking to an “audience.” Mostly speaking without notes and playing with all kinds of variations: including vocals, movement, wording. And, you’ve discovered some things about yourself and made a few decisions about your content and delivery. Right? Right!
Okay, you’ve been practicing with a make-believe audience, or your dog, or a stuffed animal! Before you get really wedded to your words and choreography, add a real live person to that audience. You now need, not just unconditional acceptance, but feedback! From someone attentive, honest, and constructive. Some people are all too willing but too critical. Some fear their comments will cause hurt feelings, and so they withhold honest reactions. You might not know ahead of time how helpful your chosen coach will be. Listen carefully to the feedback. Here are some warning signals: “I wouldn’t do it that way.” Or, someone who says it was all “great” but can’t be specific about what worked and what could be improved upon. You might need to coach your coach, using the approach below. Or, you might need to just thank that coach for the feedback – and find someone else.
After you present, to your coach, whatever you’ve been working on – say a 5-minute speech, or maybe one that’s 10 minutes or even longer – it’s time to debrief. Here’s what I do in a presentation workshop when a member has presented and is ready for feedback: I ask the speaker, “What did you like about what you just did? Give yourself some kudos.” I want to, first, keep the focus on what worked. Sometimes a speaker says only, “Well, I remembered to breathe,” or “I made eye contact.” And I say, “That’s great! What else?” When the speaker is done, I add more positives from my perspective. When there are others in the room, I ask them to comment on what they liked as well. But, at this early stage of practice, you have one trusted coach to help you focus on your strengths.
The next step, in the workshop or with your personal coach, is to point out opportunities for improvement. It’s always good to ask the speaker, before anyone else, to point out what could be improved upon (not “what went wrong”). This approach will teach you, as the speaker, to think on your feet, to coach yourself, to catch things and tweak as necessary before your audience. You can never be fully prepared for an audience. They might laugh when you don’t expect it, or not laugh when you do. You must learn to stay fully present in each moment and go with the flow. This is one reason why people should not practice before a mirror: they need to project outward, toward others, not stay focused on themselves – and their fears. Also, it’s okay to videotape yourself and watch later. But don’t start doing that too soon: it’s way too tempting to go “semi-unconscious” during the moment and wait for the movie! No, best to learn to stay present.
Here are things you might overlook but a perceptive coach will catch: you spoke too fast, or too slow, or in a singsong fashion that detracted from the content. Your point was not clear. The story you told to make your point didn’t seem like a good match. You fidgeted and played with your hair. You paced or made movements that seemed like nervous ticks, you used too many filler words – like um, ah, so, you know, okay.
If you and your coach have time, give the presentation again, trying to incorporate some of the suggestions for improvement. Maybe plan to make one positive change each time you practice. The pace is up to you. What’s important is to be able to feel good about your continuing improvement, rather than bad about what’s not perfect. It will never be perfect. It just needs to be good enough. Good enough for you to make a genuine connection that will be felt and appreciated by your intended audience.