Rehearse for Success: The Key to Natural and Engaging Presentations

Standing on a “stage”, whether it’s a real one or metaphorical, can cause anxiety. This is why most of us would rather be in the casket than give the eulogy. But giving a presentation doesn’t have to be stressful. How would your work (and your life) be different if you actually enjoyed giving presentations?

Recently I interviewed Anne Ricketts, founder at Lighthouse Communications. Anne has been teaching people how to communicate better for more than two decades, and we’ve both held positions teaching and coaching communication skills at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. In this section of our hour-long interview, we talk about the mindset and process behind being a more authentic and confident presenter.

A presentation is not a performance

The word “performance” can be loaded. In one sense of the word, it means the presentation of something, including how well it is executed. In another sense of the word, it means the completion of job tasks and responsibilities, and how effectively they are carried out. When it comes to speaking in front of groups, it’s important we don’t conflate the two meanings because this can lead to too much self-judgment and sometimes even paralysis. So if it’s not a performance, what is it?

“A presentation is a conversation between you and your audience.” —Anne Ricketts

Too often I see people slip into a different personality when they launch into a presentation. I’m amazed at how, before we practice the presentation, when we’re just talking casually about what they’re going to say, they are natural and even effervescent. Then, all of a sudden, when the “curtain goes up” they become serious. We put so much pressure on ourselves! It’s no wonder we get nervous.

Ricketts agrees, “People can easily fall into a presenter’s voice, and it might not even sound like them. It’s serious and you look serious, and that’s not engaging.” What is engaging is talking to a friend. Your voice is going to have more energy, and you’re going to use your hands more. Ricketts continues, “Most importantly, you’re making space for the audience to speak.”

Can you imagine having a conversation with a friend and not letting them respond to anything you’re saying? I’m guessing that friendship wouldn’t last long. Good communication is a give-and-take. Good presentations are a conversation. So what’s one thing you can do to make it a conversation?

One of the top tips communications coaches give is to lead with a question. It sounds simple, but so few people do it. Instead, they start by introducing themselves and then launch into content. Often they are also speaking too fast and therefore making their audience drink from a firehose of information. It’s uncomfortable for you, the speaker, and it’s also uncomfortable for your audience. Don’t do it! Instead, be courageous and open up a conversation by leading with a question.

Rehearse being natural

You know these people who look so natural when they’re giving presentations? It’s not because they were born under some auspicious astrological signature, it’s because they’ve taken the time to rehearse. Rehearsing your content is what helps you get clear on what you want to communicate. When you rehearse, you move beyond merely reciting words: you begin to embody their meaning.

“All the real work gets done in rehearsal” —Donald Pleasance, TV actor

One of the first things I do with clients is to help them clarify what their process is for preparing for presentations. Everyone is going to approach it differently, but if you don’t have a clear process in mind, chances are you won’t prioritize this kind of work. 

Anne shares about her process, “My neighbors probably think I’m crazy because I love walking and rehearsing. There’s something about being outside: it all kind of clicks for me. I mean, I do think it’s important to practice with slides, but I just like being outside and moving. It’s not just about the delivery. I make connections where I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s what that means.’”

“I get a deeper understanding of my content only after several practice rounds.” —Anne Ricketts

My process is similar. I write the script, then create the deck. This order is important because it’s easy to get distracted by imagery, fonts, etc. Get clear on what you want to say first. Only after I’ve got the deck finished do I start practicing. I practice by voicing the words out loud over and over again. First by using the script, then ditching the script and doing it from memory. 

After a certain number of practice rounds (four-five), it starts to feel natural. I can anticipate what the next slide is. I can start to time my delivery. At this phase, I even start to go back and edit out content that isn’t necessary. What am I repeating? How can I be more succinct? Because the more you say, the less they remember.

It’s counterintuitive, but you have to rehearse being natural. You don’t want to memorize and be robotic. Instead, you want to know the content so well that you don’t even need the script anymore. Yes, this takes work. But if you have a clear understanding of the process you need to follow to get to that natural state, you’ll be able to build it into your calendar—just like anything else.

Watch the full interview with Anne Ricketts here.


What’s your process for preparing for presentations? To overcome the inevitable challenges in leadership, a coach can be an invaluable tool.

If you’re curious, get on my calendar with a free Leadership Confidence call today.


👋 P.S. When you’re ready for more…

↘️ Get my Story Map Guide and become a master storyteller so you can influence, persuade, and inspire.

❤️ Follow me on Instagram

⏰ Apply for our Art of Communication women’s group coaching cohort here.