Practice! Are We Talking About Practice?

It was 2002, and I can still hear former NBA Allen Iverson’s classic rant to the media, “We sitting in here – I’m supposed to be the franchise player, and we in here talking about practice. I mean, listen: We talking about practice. Not a game. Not a game. Not a game. We talking about practice.”  Allen didn’t want to practice because he felt that his past accomplishments (NBA Rookie of the Year in 1997, NBA All Star and League Most Valuable Player in 2001) gave him the privilege to just show up on game day and play.

The professionals that I follow, whether they are athletes, speakers, or leaders, do not follow the Allen Iverson methodology of practice because they do not want to be complacent and lose their precision and edge. According to, the definition of practice is “repeated performance or systematic exercise for the purpose of acquiring skill or proficiency.”

When I was Program Chair of Accounting at Franklin University, part of my job was to hire adjunct facility.  When a new faculty member with little to no previous teaching experience joined the staff, I would sit down and discuss the amount of preparation they would need to be successful in the classroom. I would describe this by saying, “we are paying you $2,500 for the course and since this is your first time teaching, that will equate to about a nickel per hour.”  The look of horror on their face was sobering.  They needed to know the material inside and out, as well as demonstrate the homework assignments and answer questions, even for an introductory course in accounting. In the classroom they needed to be perceived as the subject-matter-expert, and this was achieved not through lecture, but through conversations discussing the material. I had to convince the new faculty member that they spoke a foreign language, accounting, and their role was to develop a way to translate the accounting language to plain English.  Translating accounting into plain English takes a lot of practice.

If they were successful, then they would have the opportunity to teach the same course over and over again to gain that proficiency, which in turn reduced prep time and drove the salary per hour higher.  Practice!

People ask me a variety of questions about practicing techniques, such as, “should I picture the audience naked or should I practice in front of a mirror?” My answer is always NO.  I prefer not to have my audiences appear in my head naked or even partially dressed, that would be a big distraction and many times, not for the better.

As to practicing in front of a mirror, I always ask, “Is that how you will be presenting to your audience, in front of a mirror?”  Of course not.  You won’t be looking at yourself, you’ll be looking at your audience.  The premise is valid, to see yourself and the mannerisms you are projecting.  However, wouldn’t it be better if you practiced your presentation in front of a video camera and then watched yourself.  “YIKES!  You want me to watch myself?!  I hate watching myself on camera.” Really, you can’t watch yourself on camera, but you want everyone in your audience to watch you.  That is not congruent.

I understand the discomfort watching a recording of your presentation because I hated it, too.  I find that practicing in front of a camera and pretending that I am delivering my presentation to an audience is the second best way of becoming proficient.  Even better, record your performance while you are delivering it to a live audience.  Then watch it a couple of days later.  Either way, you will discover more areas that need improvement than you would with any other way of practicing.  The camera never lies.

Early in my career I practiced by reviewing my presentation slides while sitting at my desk, only hearing the words in my head. But that didn’t help me the full experience, and I don’t suggest that technique. Outside of a panel discussion, a vast majority of presentations are given standing up, and all require the use of “outside words,” words actually spoken outloud. My suggestion is to find a conference or training room that has a projector, plug in your slide deck and practice out loud.  This method helps you to hear the words and make a determination if there are better words to use or a different way of expressing your thoughts.

I am often asked how much practice is enough practice. Let me paint a picture: You are going deliver a 60-minute conference presentation. Just before you start, your computer freezes and you can’t use PowerPoint.  Can you give your presentation with 95% accuracy without the use of your slides?  When you can honestly say yes, then you are well rehearsed.

Here’s another scenerio: you are going to deliver a presentation to a board of directors No visual aids, no PowerPoint, just you. Can you give your talk without referring to your notes? Can you anticipate questions that will be asked, and are you able to answer them without reference to any notes?  Once again, when you can honestly say yes, then you are well rehearsed.

Another practice technique that I use is to visualize your entire presentation.  This method is similar to what sports figures do before they start their game.  They see themselves hitting the shot, fielding the ball, making the putt.  I want to visualize the entire room, stage, audience and envision me as I deliver my presentation.

I first utilized this technique back in 2013, when I gave a keynote address entitled Embrace Your Inner Superhero.  I began visualizing the presentation two weeks before the presentation date. I knew there would be about 150 attendees, the event would be held at a hotel conference room, and I had 75 minutes.  Having presented many times in similar settings, I knew how the room would be set up with round tables, a stage with a podium, and two large screens on either side of the stage.

So I would visualize my entire presentation from my introduction to me walking on to the stage to delivering my speech. It’s easy to visualize a perfect performance but that would not help me get past obstacles. In addition to visualizing the actual material, I visualized problems, lots of problems.  I saw me stumble over certain words, saw me stumble around the podium, even saw me taking a wrong step and falling off the stage. I would do this many times to begin to work out the kinks, all to ensure that I would not stumble on words or off the stage. The day of the presentation I had rehearsed all aspects of my keynote fifty or more times, and that does not include the number of hours of working with the material and vocalizing the speech.  I was ready. And there were no stumbles.

If you want to feel comfortable and be a better speaker, presenter, trainer, or facilitator you have to put the in the practice time.  By the way, no matter how busy you are, there is always time to practice, even if it is only 5 – 10 minutes.  You can always find a place to practice, whether it is in the shower, on your daily commute, or in your kitchen in front of your pets.  I admit that I do practice in front of my two Labrador retrievers a lot. I set up the video camera and present to my attentive audience using my “outside words.” Then I watch the video and critique my performance.  As Robert H. Schuller once said, “Spectacular achievement is always preceded by unspectacular preparation.”