How to rehearse a speech

Many people don't know how to rehearse or practice a speech.

If that's you, jump straight to the 3 important pre-rehearsal options you need to review and then on to the 7 'how to' tips.

Why practice a speech

Many others ask, why they should practice.

They think once they've written the speech it's ready for delivery.

You open your mouth and the words come out. It's spontaneous, it's natural - whatever happens, is fine.

That includes all the unconscious speech habits: 'umming' and 'ahhing', awkward pausing, gabbling caused by nervousness and so on.

A wooden mannequin rehearsing a speech

What is not understood is that rehearsing can make an ordinary speech extraordinary

Think about it. Writing is only part of the process. It's delivery that completes it. Despite what you may have been told, and want to believe, the act of giving a speech is performance and delivering it well takes practice.

If you've sat through ho-hum presentations finding your finger nails more interesting, the odds are the delivery was less than polished. The content may have been excellent. It may have been well researched but because the speaker lacked basic delivery skills, the entire speech was compromised. That is why, if you care about your audience, your content, and yourself, you need to know how to rehearse.

Rehearsal refines your speech.

It helps you to identify areas needing work. For instance:

  • Is the opening effective?
  • Do the transitions from one idea to the next work?
  • Do you need to slow your speech rate? When? Are some parts better faster or slower?
  • Do you need pauses? Where? How long for?
  • Are your words clearly spoken? Can people hear you adequately?
  • Are any props you've planned fully integrated into the flow of your speech?
  • Is the ending strong?
  • Does the speech fit the time allowance?

All this, and more, you'll find out through rehearsal or practice.

How you deliver a speech makes a HUGE difference. Good delivery
helps you to reach out and communicate well with your audience.


Before you begin learning how to rehearse you need to make a critical decision. What you decide will have an impact on how you practice and deliver your speech.

Make a choice between:

  1. Reading your speech from a word-for-word script.
    This is where you have EVERYTHING you are going to say fully written out.
  2. Using cue or note cards on which you have written the headings of your main ideas in order and the key words associated with each of them.
    (Cue cards are easily made from small index cards. One is used per main idea and its key words and phrases are clearly written on each. You speak from memory using the keywords/phrases as a trigger.)
  3. Committing your entire speech to memory. In this option you have neither cue cards or a script.

There are positives and negatives for all three options.

Word-for-word script

Using a full word-for-word script can be positive as it acts as a safety net for a nervous or first time speaker. The downside is reading.

When people read they tend not to make eye contact with their audience. And neither is their voice projected outward. Instead it's focused downward to the page.

If the script is in their hands, rather than on a stand, then they're not free to gesture and there is always the temptation to mask or cover their face with it.

If a stand is used to place papers on, then it's between them and the audience, creating a barrier.

There are ways around these problems.

  • The first is to place the stand to one side instead of directly in front of you.
  • The second is make sure the stand is at eye-level to ensure easy upright reading.
    (You won't be bending down and therefore presenting the top of your head rather than your face to the audience.)
  • Another is to make sure the script is easily read.
    A mess of scribbled notes isn't good! If you lose your place, you'll be struggling to find it. Type them up in a clear good sized easy-to-read font, double space and number your pages before printing them out single-sided.

If full scripting is your choice, make a clean copy of your speech before going on to the 'How to Rehearse' tips.

Cue or note cards*

The positives for using cue cards are they are smaller than a full size script and therefore can be held unobtrusively in one hand. Because you are not using a stand for notes you're not blocked off from your audience. This means you can use eye contact more easily and direct your speech where you wish. And because you're not following a word-for-word script, you're freer to be more spontaneous.

The downside of cue cards is apparent if they haven't been prepared properly.

If they're not ordered you run the risk of getting muddled. If they're not clear and easily read, you run the same risk. The other major negative is what happens if you stumble in remembering how you linked your ideas together.

If cue cards are your choice, you'll need to prepare them before you go on to the How to Rehearse tips. You'll find a page of instructions here on how to make good cue cards.

*The term cue comes from theater. A cue for an actor is a signal to begin speaking, or enter, or do some other action required by the play.

Memorizing your speech

The positives for committing your speech entirely to memory is that you meet the audience completely free of notes. You can gesture, ad lib etc where you wish, provided of course, that you can keep yourself on track.

While this option is good for speakers used to being in front of people, it can be daunting for a novice. It is also difficult to pull off with certain styles of speech. For example, if you are giving a complex business presentation which includes the breakdown and analysis of large chunks of data, this would be risky. So think carefully and wisely before making the decision to go solo.

Styles of speech most suitable for giving entirely from memory are eulogies, wedding, retirement speeches...the type which include personal story telling. Here it can work brilliantly, although you do need to keep in mind that rote learning can make delivery wooden.

Click the link for more information on using acronyms as mnemonics (memory aids) to help remember your speech.

If memorizing your speech is your choice, pay particular attention to expressiveness when it comes to the 'How to Rehearse' tips.

How to rehearse tips

Aim to have at least three rehearsals before your final presentation in front of an audience. If you have the time available for more, take it. The more you run your speech through, the more confidence you'll have and the easier it becomes to deliver it more effectively.

The first two rehearsals are to iron out any glitches in either your text or delivery and to integrate any resource material you may be using. These could be photographs, a power point presentation etc.

The third is a dress rehearsal for the real thing.

How to rehearse tip one: reading aloud

Thumb-wooden mannequin rehearsing a speech

Repeat your speech several times out loud. This is to familiarize yourself with the flow of material from beginning to end. If you find awkward phrases, or jumps in logic change them.

Time the speech. If it is too long for the time allocated, cut it to fit, aiming to end before you are required to.

Do not worry about expression or gesture. You will cover that in 'tip 3'. Your first focus is on getting the flow fluent. That means without jumbling the order or hesitation because you've forgotten what you planned to say.

How to practice tip two: watching yourself

Now practice in front of a mirror or a video camera.

Of the two options; mirror or video, video is superior.

Actually seeing and hearing yourself while presenting is a revelation. You can no longer hide in the comfortable illusion of what you 'think' you do. This is your own reality TV show. You will see the good, the bad and the ugly. The good news about that is that you are giving yourself the opportunity to learn - to become better.

How to rehearse tip three: delivery demons

While watching yourself look out for anything hindering your communication, either in your body language or speech.

These delivery demons could be:

  • Habitual unconscious gestures like fiddling with your hair, pulling faces when you can't remember what is next, standing awkwardly, swaying, pulling at your clothes ...
  • Irregular breathing running you out of breath over long sentences or holding your breath which weakens your voice making it sound strained.
  • Racing your speech through
  • Pauses or breaks in the wrong places which weaken or alter your meaning
  • Specific words or phrases that trip you up e.g. a name
  • Holding your notes in a way that masks your face
  • Rattling or fiddling with your notes if you are reading from them
  • Placement and use of the stand, if you have one
  • Dropping or raising your voice at the end of sentences
  • Mumbling
  • Repeated phrases eg. 'and then I...','and then I...', 'and then I...'
  • Repeated fillers eg. 'um', 'err'...
  • Lack of gesture or too much of the same gesture
  • Lack of eye contact or smiling
  • Minimal variation in tone or pace
  • Bumbling the use of resources through not having them in order of presentation etc.

How to rehearse tip four: fixing the faults

When you see/catch yourself doing any of the grievous crimes listed above under 'delivery demons', STOP.

Take a deep breath, fix the problem and start again from where you left off.

You can find help with speech rate (either going too fast or too slow) by clicking the link.

If you find yourself mumbling and running words together try using some of these diction exercises.

If you need to work on pausing and breathing effectively you'll find these exercises help.

Click this link for assistance with vocal variety issues - monotone delivery and lack of expressiveness

Go to this link for gesture and body language tips.

Do be patient with yourself. Some of the habits you've just become aware of will be deeply ingrained. It will take sustained effort to create new, more beneficial ones. However the more practice you do, the quicker you'll get there.

How to rehearse tip five: making notes

If it's a matter of when and where to pause either for a breath or to stress an important point, mark it on your cue cards or script. In the same way mark passages needing to taken more slowly, or words requiring emphasis.

Make whatever notes you need to remind yourself of what you want to do to improve your delivery.

How to rehearse tip six: using humor

Humor can be incredibly difficult to get right. One person's funny, is another person's not.

If you have included jokes, they need special timing attention. Point up the cue for the audience to laugh by briefly holding back the punch line and leave space for the audience to respond before carrying on.

For your own self-preservation click for more information on How to Use Humor Effectively. You need to know your audience!

How to rehearse tip seven: the dress rehearsal

Testing, testing, testing ...

  • Run through your entire presentation as though it was the real thing. And if possible, do it in the venue you'll be using.
  • Wear the clothes you'll be wearing for the event so you can be sure you feel comfortable and that they're not restricting in any way.
    There's a helpful personal grooming checklist here with guidelines on choosing clothing.
  • Set up your stand, if you are using one, in a similar position to the one you'll use on the day.
  • If you are using any electronic equipment for example a microphone be sure to rehearse with it.
    Can't make up your mind whether to use the podium microphone or attach one to your lapel? The pros and cons of both are discussed here.
  • If you can present to trusted friends or a members of your family, do it! Their feedback could provide in valuable last minute suggestions. Tell them exactly what you want feedback on before you start. Ask them to take notes during your speech to give to you after it's finished.
  • Do not STOP if you falter. Keep going.
  • When you're done make any minor adjustments you need to and repeat to integrate them.

Rehearsing a question & answer session

And lastly, if your speech/presentation includes a question and answer session think through the types of questions you are likely to be asked, prepare answers to cover them and practice delivering those as well.

The session doesn't finish until you sit down. It's tempting to kid yourself otherwise and think that once you're through the prepared speech the rest will fall into place easily. However lack of thought and preparation will be transparently obvious and could undo everything you've worked so hard to put in place. It's a risk easily avoided.

And very lastly ...

Here's one more page you might find useful. It contains strategies to tame public speaking fear. The fifth suggestion is what I call a Bring-it-On list - a checklist to minimize the possibility of anything under your direct control going sideways and jeopardizing your presentation. You'll see it contains many of the items mentioned here plus some more. Apply the strategy to your own situation and see what you come up with.