Are You Still Winging It?


A baby unicorn dies every time someone utters the words, "I don't want to rehearse because I don't want to seem too scripted."

Come on! Are you serious?

You’ve witnessed more than your fair share of bad presentations and you know when someone is winging it. Then why on earth would you choose the same strategy and expect a different outcome?

The term "winging it" comes from the theater, where an actor is in the wings, studying the part before going on stage. Does this sound like a good strategy for performing at your best?

 Do you think Lin-Manuel Miranda of Pulitzer Prize and Tony-Award-winning Hamilton fame is winging it on stage? No, of course not. No professional "wings it."

I get it—rehearsal is a challenging experience. It means you have to admit that you may not yet know what you want to say when you hit the big stage in front of the audience, but better to fail small than to fail big!

Choosing not to rehearse is trying to convince yourself that somehow you're going to get it right on the very first attempt, or worse, that it will be over so that it won't matter anymore. Does that sound like a professional? You've worked too hard to build credibility, so don't squander it because of a little discomfort.

How much should you rehearse?

The short answer is more than you think. Some experts suggest 30:1, which means that for every hour of speaking, you should invest thirty hours of rehearsal. This doesn't include building your slides or writing your first draft. This is going over what you want to say out loud. 

So for a 20-minute talk, you should invest 10 hours of preparation. That may be overkill for your presentation, but it should give you an idea what is the gold standard. Michael Port, a keynote speaker who commands +$20,000 per talk tells a story of how he rehearsed for six months to get his 90-minute talk just right. Six months!

In a moment like this, Vince Lombardi would probably say “The man at the top of the mountain didn’t fall there.” The point is that everyone who excel at something as difficult as public speaking wasn’t born that way and certainly didn’t get there by winging it—they put in the work.

You may not be a professional speaker, but consider this: How important is it to be able to lead others in your role? It's hard to do it if you can't deliver a compelling message.

What does a good rehearsal look like?

Rehearsal doesn’t mean memorization.

Write out your script word for word but then deviate in your rehearsal based on what feels most comfortable for you. Practice saying the words but don't worry about following the script exactly. I find that rehearsal is when I’m able to adjust the pace and phrasing so that it sounds like me.

Memorization is really hard and can lead to awkwardness. Internalizing is getting the feeling and message down so that you can be fully present when you give your talk. Being present allows you to go off script if and when you want to audible or interact with the audience. This subtle difference is often misunderstood by the "I don't rehearse" crowd, who've been burned in the past by the memorization trap.

Sleep on it.

Don't try to cram all your rehearsals into one day. Several short rehearsals over several days allow your subconscious to work on your behalf. Taking this approach will also reduce the anxiety of rehearsing.

I'm always amazed by how much better I get when I return to the material the next day. I'm able to find all kinds of improvements, stories, and analogies to help deliver the message in a better way than if I had tried to do it all in one shot.

Move gradually.

Let the first rehearsal be a table read, which means sitting at a table and reading the words out loud in front of other people. Make edits as you go. It might sound different than it reads. Does it sound like you? If not, fix it. Does the message come across as you want to other people?

In the next rehearsal, stand and read your revised script. Make edits and notations for emphasis and pauses.

The next time, hold the script in your hand, but begin experimenting with giving your talk without looking at it. It's there if you need it.

Eventually, put the script on a chair so you can reference it if you get stuck. It's at this point that I like to turn my script into a note card with just the key trigger words on it.

Skip the slides.

Most people build their slides first. This is a huge mistake because it lulls you into thinking you have prepared for your presentation. When I coach people, I tell them that they are the star of the show, and the slides are the backup singers. 

The role of the slides is to emphasize the key points of your talk. It's much easier to put them together once you've figured out what you want to say.

Another helpful rule, if you do use slides (which isn't a requirement), is to include seven words or less per slide. It's not a hard and fast rule, but it serves as a reminder to not fall into the "death by PowerPoint" trap.

Final Thought

Meetings are expensive. Even if you plan to make a five-minute monologue to kick it off, you owe it to everyone involved to have thought through, written out, and rehearsed what you plan to say.

What's the worst that can happen? Everyone clearly understands the message and respects you for being a great presenter. There is not a lot of downside to being a pro.

Ready to become the strategic leader you want to be? This guide will take you through nine steps to be on your way to becoming a strategic leader. Get started now

Jeff Shannon