You have finished writing your presentation and now it is time to practice. I am frequently asked if presenters should memorize their entire presentation word-for-word or should just wing it, a.k.a improvise? The answer depends on a two things: your personal preference with a scripted presentation and your level of experience as a presenter.
Personally, I am not someone who can memorize an entire presentation as written. To me, reciting an entire presentation verbatim can make the presentation seem robotic, dull and uninspiring. I don’t feel the same connection with an audience when I repeat the same words in exactly the same way every time. If listening to a robotic presentation wasn’t bad enough, some verbatim practitioners put every spoken word on their PowerPoint presentation. Please, do not do that! If you have to use PowerPoint, then limit the number of words on a slide to no more than 15, and use the slides as a memory jogger.
One of the pitfalls to memorizing your presentation is human error. When you make a mistake – and you will – it’s easy to get flustered. You may forget a word, or many words, or even a paragraph. Now your focus is on the mistake, not the audience or the content, and you may freak out a bit. When you start to panic and your nerves are jumping everywhere, there may be unexpected side effects, and a big one is the Dreaded Shallow Breather Syndrome (DSBS). You can actually forget to breathe! When you fail to properly inhale and exhale your brain doesn’t receive enough oxygen. A lack of oxygen leads to memory loss, and that ultimately can derail your presentation. If you experience DSBS just pause and take a few deep breaths. This should help you get back on track. If not, then own it. Tell the audience you just had a “brain cloud,” look at your notes and carry on.
My suggestion is to avoid verbatim presentation altogether. Instead, list and remember the key points of your presentation. Make sure you can talk about each point in length and depth without referring to your notes or even your PowerPoint slide. When practicing your presentation, anticipate the questions someone could ask about your topic and research the answers. Anticipating questions will help you to create the conversation experience and raise your level as the subject matter expert.
Winging it is not a suggested technique for most presenters because you will come off unprepared, scatter-brained, and, sadly, just a rambling mess. You may have all the information inside of your head but cannot access it in a logical way to get your point across. Most beginner and even some intermediate level presenters can’t successfully and consistently improvise their presentations because they have not delivered it enough times.
To achieve that level of improvisation you have to deliver the same presentation over and over, maybe fifty times or more. Improvisation is the ultimate way to create the conversation experience but it does not come easily. I know first-hand how much work goes into mastering improvisation presentations.
When I first taught beginning accounting at the university level, I put in hundreds of hours to make sure I understood the material inside and out. It wasn’t until the start of my fourth year teaching the same subject, that I was able to begin to use the improvisation technique. I slowly instituted this method, but only for a couple of chapters that I was extremely comfortable in delivering. After a couple more years, I was well-versed on the content, and I could anticipate and react to students questions. A conversation versus a lecture. Toward the end of my college teaching career, I was the subject matter expert, and the improvisation technique was my standard for that class. Lucky for me it didn’t matter if a new edition textbook came out, beginning accounting has not changed very much over the years.
The goal of any presentation is to create a conversation with your audience versus a classroom lecture. Think back to your days in school when you had to listen to an instructor robotically drone on about a subject. That memory alone should be enough inspiration for you to work hard in creating the conversation experience! Creating that conversation experience will allow you to better connect with your audience, increase your standing as the subject matter expert, and improve the retention of the information you are delivering.