by Maryfran Johnson

Why Even Successful Speakers Need To Practice

Jun 10, 20093 mins

Rehearsing your speech is the key to successful delivery. But when it comes down to practicing, there's more than one way to get it done. Our favorite speakers share their methods.

Rock stars do it before striding on stage. Actors do it before gazing into the camera. Even nervous 10-year-olds do it before arriving at their piano recitals. (Of course, their mothers make them.)

What these performers all have in common is rehearsal. They practice. They polish their delivery. If there is any single premise that professional speech coaches everywhere hold universally dear, it’s that practice matters—and preferably it’s done out loud, in front of other human beings.

“A truly effective presentation is practically impossible without this magic ingredient,” writes Jerry Weissman in Presenting to Win: The Art of Telling Your Story. Just talking about your presentation instead of practicing it out loud is no more effective, he argues, “than talking about tennis would be a good method of improving your backhand.”

Yet despite the professional chorus in favor of rehearsing out loud, when I asked some very fine speakers I know about their personal practice methods, a variety of approaches stepped out of the wings.

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For Andre Mendes, global CIO of Special Olympics International and a recent keynoter at our CIO Leadership Event in Florida, rehearsing out loud would unnerve him rather than reassure him. “I would be worried about repeating myself and losing the flow,” he explains. “I am totally extemporaneous and always have been, even back to standing in front of my class when I was seven years old.”

His rehearsal method is more like preparing a dissertation. He develops his big themes, gathers related materials, considers his audience makeup and ultimately maps everything into PowerPoint slides outlining the entire story. “I time the slides to move exactly at my pace, so I rehearse the mechanics and make sure those are right.”

Another excellent speaker is CIO Tom Murphy of AmerisourceBergen, whose approach is the opposite of Andre’s—largely unscripted and PowerPoint-free.

Murphy’s practice method is to work out a rough outline of the big points he wants to make and think through the transitions. “For a long time, I thought I did my best work when completely unscripted,” he notes. “But I found I’m better when I do practice.”

Taking the classic approach to rehearsing out loud is CIO magazine’s “Career Strategist” columnist and a popular speaker at our events, Martha Heller. “Of course, you do have to love the sound of your voice,” she jokes. Heller not only rehearses her presentations as though a live audience was listening in, but paces the room like a stage. As a former editor, she can’t help but tinker with her slides to fine-tune various points, but she doesn’t count editing as real rehearsal time.

“When you are live, the time will go faster than when you rehearse,” she cautions. “You talk faster up on stage, so it’s good to build in a few pockets for extemporaneous stories.”

She never rehearses her opening remarks, however. “I pay attention during the conference and watch for things I can use to develop a humorous opening statement,” she says. “Getting a laugh from the audience makes me feel like we’re in this together.”

Maryfran Johnson is editor in chief of CIO magazine and events. Contact her at

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