Learning your presentation

In the last couple of posts, I’ve talked about:

Now it’s time to wrap up the series by looking at how you memorise what you’re going to say, whether or not you use a script – but particularly if you do (even though you shouldn’t use a script for your presentation!)

Scripts are just responses to a stimulus

old book with script writing… the thing is, that a presentation is (usually) a one person show and the only stimulus you’ve got to respond to is your own previous line. That’s why actors generally find it easier to learn dialogue than monologue.  In the former, you’ve continually got a series of stimuli to respond to. On top of that there’s the question of script’s structure but we’ll come back to that in a moment). Conversely, a script that’s a monologue raises the stakes and strips you of anything to easily react to.

The trick in a presentation is to find those stimuli. In the last blog of this series I talked about how to use various prompts such as keywords or images on your slides to prompt you to know what to say next in your presentation. But right now, let’s look at how to hook your responses onto stimuli when the only stimulus around is you!

It’s all about how you rehearse and practice

That heading isn’t a mistake because rehearsal and practice are different things.

Rehearsal is the bigger picture, the overall process, whereas practice is the act of going over something again and again and again. But here’s the killer thing to remember at this point – you know the old adage that “practice makes perfect”? It’s tosh. What practice does is “make permanent” – so before you even being to practice your script, for heaven’s sake make sure it’s perfect!

Actually, that’s not as hard as it sounds, because if you use a good system for creating your script (that is, almost anything but writing it!) the very process of creating it will go along way to embedding it in your head. For example, if you devise your script by just saying a paragraph in different ways until it sounds the best it can be, you’ll probably have recited it a lot. And a mean a lot!

There’s a lesson in that – learn your script as you create your presentation.

But let’s look more at how you should practice. Let’s learn from other performance professionals such as musicians, actors, and dancers.   I’ve worked as two of those and toured with third as the company’s Technical Director.) Imagine, if you will, an orchestra about to learn to play some major piece of music such as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Sketch of BeethovenBeethoven’s Ninth takes about 70 minutes to play.

What the conductor, and his (or her!) assembled musicians do not do is start at the beginning and go through all XXX bars, in order again and again and again. Why? Because a piece of music is like a script and it’s hugely inefficient to do it that way. Instead what they might do is YYY

How did you learn irregular foreign verbs at school?

Pattern and structure (and repetition/rehearsal). It’s as simple as that.

I can still conjugate some of the latin I learned when I was 13! Why because, like a simple poem, it has rhythm and rhyme. The key to memorising the structure of your presentation’s script is to have such a clear pattern. Scripts which have a very clear and obvious structure are much easier to memorise. One way of testing if your presentation has a structure that’s clear enough for your audience is to look at how easily you can memorise it.

If it sinks in relatively easily it’s a hint that you’ve got a good structure. It’s not proof, because there are other things involved, but it’s a start.

Script memorising nitty-gritty

Script learning hint #1

Do it in chunks. Don’t try to memorise the whole thing at once. Instead, learn a paragraph and give that time to settle in. Don’t rush it. Wait. No, wait longer than that… then wait some more. Then, and only then, should you move on to your next paragraph.

Okay, that’s exaggerating, because if you need paragraph one to be perfect before you start the next one, you’ll never learn your presentation in its entirety. But I’d rather you learned slowly than learned fragily (that’s not a real word, I know, but you know what I mean).

  • Fragily – adjective – (of scripts in presentations) vulnerable to being forgotten or mis-spoken in the heat of delivering your presentation.

The same principle applies, by the way, to smaller chunks. Do a sentence or so at a time, then another two, then put them together. Don’t break it down into ‘learning units’ that are so small they don’t make sense, because learning random sets of words is much hard than learning something meaningful.

Script learning hint #2

Do it out loud.

Learning things out loud means that you’re engaging not just your brain, but also your muscles. Two sets of memories are involved – intellectual and physical.

Script learning hint #3

Memorise your presentation’s script in shorter chunks of time – but not too short. Yeah, I know… that’s a bloody annoying sentence. What I mean is that it takes you a few moments to get yourself ready to rehears, so don’t try and do it in snatched 30 second chunks (unless you’ve got some backup!). But more importantly, your brain gets tired, so you shouldn’t try and spend more time learning your script than you can concentrate for.

That’s depressingly a lot shorter than most of us would like to pretend to ourselves it is.

Think of it as like going to the gym. Once you’ve been working in the gym for (let’s say) 45 minutes, there’s not much point in doing another 45 minutes, because your muscles are ‘fatigued’. (Fatigued is the polite term my trainer uses for ‘knackered and not working any more.) So it is with learning your presentation script. Once you’ve got to your capacity for this session, stop. Do something else and come back to it fresh.

Script learning hint #4

Don’t forget to revise.

In the heat of the moment and the excitement of making progress, it’s easy to get sucked into the maelstrom of learning the next paragraph and the next and the next… but your teachers at school made you go back over old stuff for a reason!

When you set up your timetable for all of this (and remember before, when I said you shouldn’t be doing this anyway!?) allow for the fact that as you go on, progress will be slower, as you’ll have to spend more and more time going over what you’ve already done.

Script learning hint #5

Don’t memorise the script in pure order.

There are a couple of reasons for not starting at the first word and going on in simple chronological order. The obvious one is that this means the first paragraph or two of your presentation might be over-rehearsed (not it won’t be, but it might feel like it!) but it could certainly be over-rehearsed compared to the middle or end of your presentation. Running out of steam towards the climax of your presentation is a recipe for disaster!

The other reason is equally obvious if you think about it. I said before that one of the reasons for not memorising a script is that if you forget it, or fluff it, you’re stuffed… and that’s true. But you can make it less true by learning your presentation in ‘chapters’ so that if you lose your place in paragraph 32 and can’t remember script paragraph 33, you can at least start again from 35, if that’s one of the starting points you’ve memorised from.

There’s more to memorising scripts in presentations…

The number 1000But as I’m welllllll over a thousand words, you probably stopped reading a while ago! 🙂

Don’t forget to go back to the other two parts of this series and learn

  • why you shouldn’t be trying to memorize your presentation script in the first place; and
  • what you can do instead of memorising a script for your presentation.

And tell me… what works for you?

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