Earlier this year, I had an opportunity to work with some executives on an hour-long sales presentation they were giving. We had a good-looking slide deck and a strong message about why their bid should be the winner. The presentation was well-developed from a content perspective, but the execs fought against practicing the actual delivery. I pushed them a bit on their reasoning and one of them said, “I want to be organic; I don’t want to sound rehearsed.”

This is a common objection, and because of that I think it’s worth addressing. Does rehearsing a presentation make it fake or contrived?

And to that I say no. Practicing does not take away from the authenticity or real-ness of a presentation; quite the opposite in fact. Think about a bad presentation you’ve sat through at a conference or some kind of networking event. The speaker probably said um and like a lot, moved around at odd times, couldn’t be heard in the back, and overall failed to communicate their message. That’s what a lack of practice looks like. When you practice, you are removing the elements of a presentation that distract the audience (verbal tics like ums and non-verbal parts such as posture) and building on the things that will get your message across.

Now, I don’t want to totally dismiss the executive’s concern. What did he mean specifically when he said he wanted to avoid “sounding rehearsed”? It turns out he was worried about coming off like he was reciting a script. Totally understandable. But if this is what you sound like when you present, the problem is a lack of practice, not too much. That rote recitation occurs when you are concentrating on the words of a presentation to the exclusion of everything else. It’s not authentic because you’re not mentally with audience, sharing something they will find valuable; instead of presenting you are simply talking in their general direction. 

A high quality presentation sounds organic because the presenter knows their material inside and out. They probably could recite exactly from memory if they wanted to, but a deep understanding of the material allows them to adapt on the fly, take questions, or go off script and still keep the core message intact. After many repetitions, the words become the easy part.

In the end, I convinced the executives to practice their pitch. After the 3rd run-through, they were unhappy and discouraged because they were in the zone of rote repetition; focusing on the words led to a robotic pitch. But we kept going and after 10 practice rounds, they had honed their presentation into a persuasive, compelling, and organic pitch. Practicing does not take authenticity away from a presentation; practice is the only way to be truly authentic.