#127: How to rehearse a scientific presentation

Good scientific presentations are the result of preparation and rehearsal. Even if you carefully prepare, you won’t automatically deliver a good talk: You need to rehearse it. But how? What is the best way to rehearse a presentation? What are the steps you need to consider to end up with a good talk? Follow our 12 steps and make sure your rehearsal time is spent well!  

Rehearsing a talk before you deliver it seems to be an obvious task: It’ll increase the quality of your presentation, your audience will understand you better, you’ll look like a confident and prepared presenter whom they can trust, and you will be less nervous because you know you can deliver your talk. It all comes down to rehearsal. 

Repeatedly, we get asked during courses how to rehearse. Should everything be rehearsed? The transitions, the intro and the ending? Or is it enough to focus on the parts you’re not so fluent in? Wouldn’t it kill spontaneity if everything is rehearsed—that’s a common objection we hear. But no, rehearse your entire talk. 

To help you, we’ve provided 12 steps to make your rehearsal comprehensive. When you follow the steps, you can be sure your presentation is set on the right track. All it requires from you is to understand that rehearsal is not an add-on but an essential part of a good presentation. Therefore, commit to the rehearsal and accept that the rehearsal time will have to be factor x longer than your presentation. 

1. Make rehearsal as realistic as possible 

You’re rehearsing because you want to learn and get used to the specifics of delivering your talk. Therefore, don’t take any shortcuts by leaving out some aspects, skipping some parts of your talk, or jumping over sections because you think you know them. To rehearse means to make the situation as realistic as possible: Assume you will be in front of an audience that is listening to you. Practice every moment in your talk as if it is real. Rehearse the use of all technology and tools that you’ll use in your talk. The benefit is that later when you really present, these situations are no longer new to you and you’ll perform more confidently. 

2. Stand up and talk out loud 

When standing, your voice sounds better and you can use body language to underline your messages. Consider this situation in your rehearsal and stand up and talk out loud—even if you’re rehearsing just for yourself. If you’re giving a virtual talk, you can still decide to stand and adjust the camera angle to record you. If you decide to sit at a desk for a virtual presentation, look for a comfortable position where you can gesture with the upper part of your body.  

3. Know and understand your material, but don’t memorise it

A common and probably convenient objection against rehearsal is that if you rehearse everything, you’ll look like an actor, and your audience doesn’t want to see a fully rehearsed show. We agree that it is not a good idea to memorise all your sentences and then press a button and spit them out when you need them. Rather, you should understand your talk and its structure well, and this needs to be rehearsed. You will see that some phrases in your talk—when you rehearse it again and again—are quite handy and work well, so you can stick to them. For other parts of your talk, you can be more flexible, but don’t assume that a well-rehearsed talk will make you look like a robot. A well-rehearsed talk looks spontaneous but in reality, the presenter has rehearsed it far more than the audience knows.  

4. Rehearse several times to become fluent 

Rehearsal is a process and needs several rounds. The first 2-3 rounds won’t be very fluid and you might worry whether you will ever get this talk to work or not. Rest assured, you will–you just need a few more rehearsal rounds. So don’t give up too early! Be prepared to run several rounds.

5. Check time

Timing is an essential requirement for a conference with many speakers. You’ve got a time slot allocated to your talk and you shouldn’t expand it. Yet without rehearsal, you will not know how long your talk is, so you need to rehearse to find out. But make sure first to rehearse a couple of rounds and then start checking the time. The first rounds are usually longer because you still lack fluency. 

6. Record your presentation 

Technology makes it so easy for you, and so you should definitely not skip the chance to record yourself during rehearsal time. You can start with only voice recordings and listen to your oral delivery and adjust it the way you want. You should also take your mobile phone and record a full video of your presentation. This step provides an enormous learning opportunity as you will see your presentation the same way the audience will. When you watch it, check how you speak, how you interact with your slides, how you address the audience, how you sound, and how you use body language. Whatever you dislike, you can still rectify and improve in further rehearsals. 

7. Get someone to listen to you 

Any rehearsal is only half the value when you do it without an audience. To make it easier, get a good friend to listen to you. You will see that you perform differently than when you rehearse on your own. For a more realistic presentation situation, ask a group of friends, family members, or good colleagues to join you for a 20-minute session (or however long  you need) and listen to your talk. Now there will be a bit more pressure on you and the stress level will be a bit higher, so it’s a great rehearsal situation.

8. Ask for feedback 

Once you have a friendly rehearsal audience assembled, don’t miss the chance to ask them for their feedback. They can surely give you a lot of valuable tips on what to improve in your talk! 

9. Rehearse all interactions with the audience

A good presentation often includes specific elements where the presenter interacts with the audience, e.g. asking questions. These are very valuable elements of a talk that you should not leave up to chance. Think about how you will handle these interactions and practice them as well—even rehearse variations of the situations that could happen depending on the audience’s reactions. 

10. Rehearse well in advance before delivering the presentation 

No, don’t leave rehearsal for the last day before the presentation. Rehearsal is a process where you’ll start a bit unsure and shaky and become better through the various rounds of rehearsal. But to go through such a process in a very short time is not pleasant and could increase your stress level. Instead, start well in advance with rehearsals, long before you have to deliver your talk, and do several shorter units of rehearsal over several days. 

11. Rehearse different parts more often 

When rehearsing, you’ll soon realise that there are some parts of your talk which are more difficult than others. Sometimes it is the transition from one topic of your talk to another, or it could be the transition from one slide to another where you always get stuck. Instead of rehearsing the entire talk again and again, have a look at these difficult parts in isolation. Rehearse them a few times to make sure you’ve got them covered. Then go back and rehearse the entire talk including the difficult parts. It is also a good idea to put specific focus on the beginning and the ending of your talk. Both parts are remembered best by the audience, so you want to make sure you deliver them well. 

12. Practice at the venue 

Most, if not all of the rehearsal rounds discussed in the previous steps, will take place in your institute, in your office, or at home, in a safe and familiar place. But for in-person conferences, you will have to deliver at another venue which will give you a specific feeling and can add to your stress level because you don’t know the environment. Therefore, if possible, try to be a day or at least 1-2 h early to the presentation venue and rehearse your talk there as well. It will benefit you a lot to know where the screen is, how the laptop works, and how the audience is seated. If possible, test it out before and build it into your rehearsal phase! 

Conclusion

Rehearsal is the key to a good presentation and it will help you to conquer nerves. You will be a better presenter and feel less stressed. Make sure to plan some time for the rehearsal and commit to it. Your audience will be grateful to see a well-rehearsed talk. If it’s your first talk, check our post #26 for 17 life-saving tips for first-time presenters or consider post #95 and apply the 5 tips to improve any presentation. 

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