Presentation rehearsal – learning from Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou is pretty much my favourite poet. Not quite, but close. But she did write what is probably my favourite poem (Like Dust I Rise). Amongst the many things she’s famous for are pithy bits of wisdom, almost perfectly designed for sharing online. Perhaps one of the most commonly reposted goes like this:

Maya Angelou quote

People will forget what you said. They’ll forget what you did. But they’ll remember how you made them feel.


She’s right.

However, it’s only true as far as it goes. Why? Because people don’t spontaneously feel something about you. They feel something about you because of what you said and what you did. In other words, while Maya Angelou is right, it’s not magic. You need to say good stuff and do good stuff in order to make people feel the good stuff.

So we’ve got a situation where saying things and doing things are necessary-but-not-sufficient activities. So what?

So something big: it’s about as big as realising that while winning is what matters, not the training you do in the gym, you can’t win without the training in the gym. Suck it up, get on with it, and realise that what you say matters.

Time spent working on your presentations is the same as time spent in the gym.  You might not like it at the time, but you’ll like how it makes you feel afterwards. Trust me on this: I hate the gym with a vengeance but I like the level of fitness that results from it.

But just like your ‘form’ (gym-bunny speak for technique) is important in the gym, how you rehearse your presentation matters too. Here’s a radical but simple truth… Practice doesn’t make perfect. What practice makes is permanent. So if you’re practicing it wrongly all you’re doing is cementing the wrong behaviour in your head. I can’t  go into the neuroscience behind this but basically it’s, well, it’s obvious.  (Yes, I know, this is a blog based on the science of presenting, but I’m on a train and can’t access much by way of research materials, sorry! 🙂 )

What that means for you is that you can’t make the most common mistake people make in their rehearsals – they take a run at something, mess up a bit, correct it, and say “Oh, okay, I’ll not do that on the day”.  To be brutal about it you need to do it again – but this time right. And even if you do that, all you’ve done is balance out the wrong-run in your head. Chances are you need to do it right over and over and over to fix it.
I’m not saying you should have a script – heaven forbid! – but I am saying you should:
  • run through your presentation to find the bits you screw up; then
  • go over the main one, slowly and carefully to get it right
  • do that again and again until you can’t get it wrong
  • then gradually get faster until you can’t get it wrong at full speed!
  • Repeat for the next most significant mistake.
That kind of deliberate, focused practice (as part of your rehearsal process) is the method used by actors, dancers and musicians. It’s how you get better, faster.


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