[On] Point to Ponder: How To Rehearse Without Rehearsing

The Trouble with Keynotes
In the early days of On Point, I was invited to give the keynote address that kicked off a 3-day entrepreneurship event. I had a month to prepare and was given a time limit of 30-45 minutes. I may have mentioned in previous posts that I have four children… who are oftentimes my best (and worst) critics when I’m rehearsing a talk. I don’t exactly have large blocks of time to rehearse a 45-minute talk three times in one day. And I know you don’t either.

Keynotes and TED talks are unique. Often, slides are frowned upon. That means no cheat sheet, no prompts. Some venues provide a floor monitor, but not so for me. I had to know this talk from start to finish. And I refuse –  as I tell my clients regularly – I absolutely refuse to memorize a talk.  It’s way too risky, for reasons explained later.

So I got to thinking…how can I rehearse, without really rehearsing?
There’s got to be a way…And that’s when it hit me.

What I did next has improved both my coaching and my personal approach to rehearsing talks. It involves a few clicks of a button and the tap of a finger. Try it out, and let me know how it goes:

Color-code your keynote & hit record

Step 1:
Color code the sections of your talk, as seen above. Mine had 4 major sections. It timed at about 40 minutes.

Step 2:
Open the camera on your phone. Roll your video while the phone camera videotapes the section of color you’re about to read. (Then, when you want to listen to the green/orange/yellow segment, it’s easy to find it on your phone.) Now, with your color-coded script open on your screen, stand up and get ready to deliver.

Step 3:
Read the script into your phone as it records. Record one color as one file. Read the talk the way you want to deliver it – with the right emphasis, inflection, strategic pauses, humor, etc. Repeat this step until all color-coded sections are recorded.

Step 4:
Plug and Play. Plug in your ear buds, and hit play. Listen to yourself give the talk sections. Start with the intro only, listen to that section over and over (3-5x). While you’re running. While driving. As you do any mindless activity or chore like pulling weeds, folding laundry, painting, washing the car, whatever.

Step 5:
Deliver the section for real now. Don’t worry about perfection – get the main ideas across. Don’t stop and start over, keep pushing through. Add colored sections to your “live” rehearsals as you learn them. Nail that intro and conclusion. A few days before your talk, record yourself live with the camera or better still, perform it in front of others.

Why this Works

  • You’re both rehearsing and visualizing simultaneously. You’re rehearsing by listening to your own voice and your delivery techniques. You’re learning the order of the content by listening to each section repeatedly. As you listen, visualize the hand motions you’ll do, the part of the stage you’ll move to, etc.
  • By the time you start to practice “live”, your brain has committed to memory the content of each color-coded section. I found myself saying, “OK start with green, after I say X point, I transition to yellow with this line…”
  • You’re not memorizing, you’re learning message flow. As you hear the recorded segments, you’re recalling the basic order of sentences, but not the exact words. This is good! Memorizing something verbatim puts too much pressure on speakers. With this technique, you’ll have to skills to paraphrase or ad-lib until you get to the next color.  Is it okay to memorize a few sentences that are critical to your speech? Absolutely. I do it too. Just don’t rely on memorizing all of it. As the story below illustrates, that’s a recipe for disaster…

The Dangers of Memorizing: A Short Story

When I was 15, I had one particularly harrowing experience that demonstrates why memorization can completely sink you. I was in high school, trying out for the Pom Squad. We learned a routine to the 90’s hit song, Rave On (I know, awesome). In the middle, we’d have eight 8-counts to make up our own moves. (This was a ploy to evaluate both our creativity and our ability to recover.) I practiced all week, non-stop, and with friends who’d critiqued me. Tryouts were solo – me in front of a panel of three judges. I felt really strong.

When I got to the 8-counts I’d made up for myself? I blanked out. Then I panicked. I stopped not knowing what to do. I just stood there, watching my goal of finally making the squad disintegrate before my eyes.

I will never forget the feeling of forgetting.
I will never forget what it was like to freeze up completely – my mind going completely…blank.

The music kept going, but I did nothing. To make matters worse, I couldn’t recover. I’d lost my place. All I could think was, “I’m forgetting, I’m forgetting! Now what? I don’t know. I can’t remember.” I was horrified that I was failing right then and there, losing any chance I’d make the squad (which I didn’t).

The same dangers exist for public speakers who try to memorize. Do not fall prey to this trap. Instead, use the technology at your fingertips. Get creative. Learn – Rehearse – Visualize. Master your color-coded message.

Photo courtesy of Ruth Bruhn

Cindy provides public speaking coaching and brand consulting to entrepreneurs and small businesses who seek to master their message on stage, online and in publications. Her passion for crafting, analyzing and presenting messages developed through over 25 years in the corporate, academic and entrepreneurial worlds. Cindy coaches clients on pitch decks, TED talks, storytelling, presentation presence, brand messaging, PR strategy and more.


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When you meet Cindy, you can’t help but feel engaged and pay attention. She clearly is an outstanding communications professional. The way she took the stage, conveyed her message and shared her approach to storytelling at the recent conference was mesmerizing.

Cindy made me rethink my approach to storytelling that I had used in my client work for many years. Cindy’s workshop alone made my trip to Denver worthwhile.

Ruth Winden, Executive Coach (UK)

“Cindy, Your coaching was fantastic. You are so good at this. I have done a lot of this too, but I am in awe of your approach, the simplicity of your suggestions and your general professionalism. Thank you.”

Susan Strong, Director at SAGE Boulder

When speaking at the CTL conference this spring, I had the privilege to sit in on Cindy’s Storytelling talk. Cindy has an impressive background, and a wonderful approach to helping you present more effectively. Telling a compelling story is crucial for effective presentations that connect with your audience, and Cindy can equip you to prepare and present in a structured, but seemingly unrehearsed way.

Kristin Sherry, Author|Speaker|Coach

“Cindy, I’m in your Career Thought Leaders Conference session right now and you’re absolutely delivering on what you promised when we first met! I’m so excited to keep making progress in developing my brand story.”

Mashaal Ahmed|DC Career Coach

“As a professional speaker, I know the value of getting feedback before giving an important speech. As I prepared my TEDx talk, Cindy was the perfect person to give me outside perspective. She did a beautiful job taking the many ideas I had floating around in my head and helping me select what to use, how to organize them, and how to tie it all together.

I love the way she coached, not trying to make her words my own, but instead, considering what I was trying to achieve and helping me stay true to my voice. If you have to stand and deliver a great talk, working with Cindy can help you ensure you’re at your best!”

Tanis Roeder, Elevate Your Communication