We’ve all attended lectures in which the presenter basically read all the words right off his or her slides. That gets old fast. It makes you wonder why you’re in the lecture, since you could simply read through the slides on your own.

I don’t think many lecturers consciously plan to do this. It arises either through lack of awareness (the lecturer doesn’t realize that he or she is reading the slides word for word), or through lack of practice.

Having read the previous two paragraphs, you’re not going to make the first mistake – so let’s talk about the practice part.

Typical mistakes

The reason many lecturers simply read off their slides is because they don’t actually practice talking. I have certainly been guilty of this. I made great slides, spent a lot of time getting the look and the font right, but when I got up in front of the class, I realized I never actually thought about the words I was going to say. Not good. First thing to avoid: not practicing at all.

Another typical mistake is to “practice” by silently flipping through your slides. Even if you’re thinking about what you’re going to say, this is not enough. Do it this way and I guarantee you’ll get up to make your presentation and stumble over your words, or – gasp – simply revert to reading off your slides.

How to do it right

JobsSteve Jobs was notorious for his awesome keynote speeches. He had awesome slides, for sure. He had the whole simple-but-not-too-simple thing down perfectly. But his presentations were phenomenal not because of his slides, but because he was the center of attention.

The key to speaking in a fluid, easy manner (without reading off your slides) is to practice.

Steve Jobs practiced for hours and hours before each of his presentations. Seriously. This is a great method – but not always feasible in the medical field. We can still benefit from this idea, though, by adapting his model to make it work in a shorter amount of time.

We’ll talk about this method in a minute, but before we do that, there are some general points that will make your practicing more effective.

  • Before you start, make notes of the things you want to say that are not on your slides. Your slides will be brief and to the point (we talked about this under “Don’t Crowd the Slide with Text“). So you’ll need to remember some stuff that is not written out on the slides. The “notes” section in PowerPoint is good for this, because then those notes will remain with your presentation, and you can also view them during your talk when you are in presentation mode.
  • It’s great if you can practice in the room you will be giving your talk in – but this isn’t always feasible. Practicing at home or in some place where you have some privacy is just fine.
  • Stand up when you practice (don’t just sit at your computer)! Your mind will think differently if you are standing, walking around, and gesturing as you would during your talk. And when you actually give your talk, your “muscle memory” will kick in and it won’t feel like you’re doing it for the first time.
  • It may be helpful to use a mirror either to glance at yourself from time to time, or as a virtual audience. It feels weird, but you’ll get used to it.
  • It is also useful (painful, but useful) to videotape yourself. This lets you see how you move, whether you have repetitive gestures (or not enough gestures), hear what your voice sounds like (do you need to slow down, or lower your pitch?), and note whether you use filler phrases (um, uh, you know…).

Assuming you don’t have hours and hours to practice each talk, let’s plan to run through your talk three times. Here are some things to think about during and after each of your run-through sessions.

1. First run-through

  • The goal of this run-through is to get an idea of roughly how long your talk will be, and also how much you can recall what you wanted to say for each slide.
  • Pull your slides up in slideshow mode (so the slide fills the whole screen and you can’t see the notes field).
  • Give the talk straight through, without stopping to check your notes or correct what you’re saying.
  • After your first run-through, flip through the notes section for each slide to see what points you missed.

2. Second run-through

  • The goal of the second run-through is to try to formulate the way you want to say things – the actual words you want to use to explain things.
  • During this practice, take the time to see if you can find the best way to articulate the points you want to make. You may need to start sentences over as you talk through the best way to say certain things.
  • After the second practice, it’s useful to write out a little cheat sheet noting points you missed and areas that that require more thoughtful wording. It’s best to do this slide by slide (although you probably won’t need notes on every slide), so when you do your third run-through – and your final talk – you’ll know which slides need a bit more effort. Try to keep it to one piece of paper.

3. Third run-through

  • The goal of this run-through is to give the best talk you can and get it ingrained into your brain.
  • This time, really envision yourself giving the talk to your audience. Pretend you’re in the actual room, and visualize your audience right in front of you (including any specific people that you may find intimidating). This kind of mental run-through has been shown to lower anxiety when it comes time to give your talk.
  • Have your little cheat sheet nearby (but don’t hold it), and give your talk straight through, looking at your sheet as needed.

This sounds like a lot of work, compared to just making slides and flipping through them the night before your talk. It is! But practicing in this way will make your talk much, much better. You’ll actually be talking and explaining, not reading off your slides. And as a bonus, you’ll feel much more comfortable when you’re doing the actual presentation.