Practicing Until You Can’t Get It Wrong
“Remember the words you told me, love me ‘til the day I die
Surrender my mfhm hm mmhm hmbm mmyou’re mine”
That was me on stage a few weekends ago singing with my band. I forgot the words. I had to mumble my way through part of the song. My bandmates and I had been practicing this particular song for the last several weeks. I knew all of it moments before I went on stage, but with the pressure on, it turns out I didn’t know it well enough.
I’ve been noticing lately how many parallels there are between my job as a sales professional and trainer and my job as a musician/performer. If I can sing and play a song 80% correctly and you were to put me on stage, I would probably get only about 50% accuracy. To be successful, my band can’t just practice until we get it right. We have to practice until we can’t get it wrong. The same goes when preparing for a sales pitch or presentation.
Practicing your pitch in your office or at home until you get it right is not enough. Once you get in front of a prospect, a combination of nerves and unexpected circumstances can sabotage your presentation. Don’t feel bad; it happens to everyone. The trick is knowing your content so well that nothing can throw you.
When I was on stage, sure, I was embarrassed that I forgot some lyrics, but it wasn’t a disaster. We had already been playing for a long time, the audience was into it, and we made sure our next song was one I knew very, very well.
In a sales situation, when you forget what you want to communicate, things don’t usually turn around so easily. You can’t mumble your way through a sales pitch, and you don’t have the benefit of your listeners having had a few drinks (at least not in the sales meetings I’ve been in).
So, how do you get to know your presentation so well that you can’t fail? Obviously you need to practice! And in order to be successful, you need to be intentional about how you practice. At Maestro, we encourage “deliberate practice,” which means preparing with a specific goal in mind.
Maybe this goal is to master one particular slide. Perhaps it’s explaining a concept in less than two minutes. Or maybe it’s practicing what questions you’ll ask in order to reengage a prospect who has tuned out. What’s important is identifying the skill or portion of your presentation that needs attention and focusing on just that.
When honing your presentation, it’s not enough to master each slide. It’s important to also think about the transition between each slide. These transitions should be practiced as well. Nothing sounds more scripted than clicking to your next slide and saying, “Now let’s talk about [title of slide].” Figure out what links two concepts together and use that as your transition. You could also ask a question as part of your transition. Then your audience is helping to fill in the empty space.
Transitioning from slide to slide is a lot like a band going from song to song. It should feel seamless. Even if each song is great, the band will still look unprofessional if they struggle in between songs—just as you’ll look unprofessional if you struggle between slides.
Finally, getting to know your presentation inside and out means needing less and less of a script. When I start practicing with a deck, I usually have a long, detailed script in front of me. This is useful in making sure I don’t miss anything I want to say. After some practice, however, you should be able to pare down your script into notes. This will make it much easier to use during an actual presentation.
In the end, you should know your presentation well enough that you only need a few words to jog your memory and ensure you make all of the important points. It’s so much easier in the moment to be able to glance down at a word or two than your entire script. You will appear better prepared and more professional.
Deliberate practice, focusing on transitions, and reducing your script force you to have a deep knowledge of your presentation. Even with nerves and unexpected circumstances, you will know your pitch well enough that you cannot fail. You’ll come across as prepared, professional, and unflappable. Then you can go out and celebrate, hopefully catching a band that doesn’t mumble through any songs!