I’ve given a lot of presentations, mostly about forest finance, timber markets and communication skills. When preparing, I use current data and recent research overlaid onto basic “themes.” Then I practice with new stories or examples. Even though I may be fluent and experienced with the themes, I always practice the presentation out loud. Why?

Verbalizing is an effective way to connect ideas, verbs, and nouns in actual language. Speaking the presentation, even if just to yourself, smooths transitions, and uncovers examples. Relevant stories and experiences come to mind while practicing out loud, and the exercise creates a form of muscle memory that builds confidence for the talk. Over the years, I have given hundreds of presentations to myself while driving to conferences and client locations.[1]

People in many professions, from comedians to singers to politicians to teachers practice, out loud, the words they plan to say to improve their delivery and effectiveness. I read a story about former NFL Head Coach Jason Garrett, who used to be the backup quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. Early in his career as a player, when Garrett was learning to call plays, he would review the plays in his head and then shout them out load, as if in the huddle on the field, while driving to and from the Cowboys’ facility. Garrett said, “People thought I was crazy, but I still do it.”

My friend Jim King, a retired forest industry executive, would also verbalize key points to prepare for presentations. He asked the same of his team, to impress upon them the importance of developing tight messages and clear communication skills. When preparing his team for Board meetings, Jim would have the managers practice presentations multiple times in the actual Board room to finalize slides and reinforce how one person’s presentation linked to the next. 

Verbalizing messages and doing “dry runs” does not require more time, it simply requires an organized schedule to make it happen. The payoff from verbalizing in advance, which gives your brain extra time to process, is realized in the room. Clicking through slides is insufficient for presenting at your best, just as swinging a baseball bat in the living room is insufficient for improving as a hitter. The shorter the talk or the more exclusive the audience (e.g. Board of Directors), the more effective, relevant and powerful this advice becomes. 

Practicing out loud scrubs the messages and preselects appropriate words. It requires you to know, even intuit, the “structure” or flow of the talk. For example, a 15-slide deck may cover three topics, with 3 to 5 slides per topic sandwiched between an intro slide and a concluding slide. In my head, I know this; it provides a map for the talk.

My experience taught me that being nervous is natural and not indicative of whether a talk will go well or not. I have also learned that failing to verbalize is, for me, failing to prepare. It is a practical and effective way to deliver a better talk.

Future posts will continue to focus on the personal “growth rings” of learning, thinking, and communicating.

[1] Yes, I literally give talks while driving to my destination. This can be distracting, like talking on a cell phone. I once missed an exit while working through a talk and ended up driving an extra hour north to Tennessee instead of south into Alabama.