How a stand-up comedian rehearses for both flexibility and confidence.
An over-rehearsed presentation - like an over-rehearsed show - can really stink. It can be so automatic that it loses touch with the audience. It becomes a polished set of actions and words and ceases to be two-way communication, a persuasive dialogue.
On stage, we know that the comic aside - the gag improvised when the scenery collapses or a cellphone in the audience rings - is usually the biggest laugh of the evening. It's because the audience knows it was one-off, one-time, authentic creativity. So should we always improvise?
Usually, no. Bluffing your way through Shakespeare (or a complex presentation) on a wing and a teleprompter will not get you far. You need the confidence to know what happens next, the experience to get you through the technically challenging parts. And that only comes from practice. Lots of practice.
Hmm. So - we are in a quandary. Authentic, spontaneous flexibility, or calm rehearsed confidence? What to do?
The answer is this: you should not rehearse your presentation, you should rehearse your presentations. Plural.
When I'm developing a stand-up routine. I have many of my gag ideas on little index cards which I can add notes to, reshuffle, tear in half, or even eat in frustration. I will stand in a room away from the world (this is embarrassing) and rant my way through the cards. I'll try every line ten different ways. I'll try ten different orders. I'll throw cards away, and dig them out of the bin. I'll try missing out this part, and go off on a stream-of-consciousness tangent expanding that section. I'll even try running the cards backwards - seriously, it can teach you a lot.
After a while, I don't need the cards much, and I can play with my material while jogging, driving, or screaming at the top of my lungs while zooming down the Autobahn on my motorcycle. (If you've ever seen a lunatic doing this, now you know it was me. It feels as mad as a brush, but it's very effective.)*
At the end, I have not just rehearsed one routine - I have rehearsed dozens of routines based on basically the same material.
This stand-up rehearsal technique works for presentations too. Play with the pieces and bang them together until you know every angle.
After a while, you will know what the best order is. You can use it for your test audience. But you will not be tied to that order...
You will have all the confidence you need, because you will have mastered your material. But you will also have the flexibility you need. You will know that there is more than one path through the presentation, and that you can cope with anything.
Most importantly, you will be able to adjust your presentation with confidence to genuinely respond to the audiences signals - making it a real two-way exchange, not some polished performance that could have been done by DVD.
*Actually, a shouted rehearsal is a great technique. I know classical actors who rehearse monologues by shouting them from the beach into the ocean waves. Of course, this works best if you have a Victorian greatcoat and rather wild hair.
Photo of some of my index cards by me.
(This post is based on a comment I made last year on TJ Walker's blog)
!!! More great showbiz tips for presenters here.