How to Improve Public Speaking: Six Reasons You Can’t Rehearse Inside Your Head

Brilliant Early Career Scientist:
I rehearsed inside my head! It went great.


doesn’t work.

not even for you.

not even for the most brilliant scientist (or actor for that matter) in the world.

An actor in my class  chose to practice her final exam monologue “inside her head.”  The monologue required that she remove her stockings in an oh-so-sexy and seductive way.  When she performed her monologue (unfortunately for her, I insisted that her  performance for the grade be “outside her head”), disaster struck.  Her right stocking slipped down on its own halfway through the performance and gathered, somewhat un-sexily,  around her ankle. The other stocking snagged on her toenails. Exit seductive. Enter awkward. Here’s why:

6 Reasons You Can’t Rehearse Inside Your Head 
(and what you’ll learn if you practice out loud)

  1. Your brain will create perfect conditions.
    Photo depicts an officer in uniform about to jump from a plane. "Mission Rehearsal", from flickr Creative Commons, posted by the U.S. Army.
    Mission Rehearsal – posted by the U.S. Army on flickr. Some things just should not be practiced inside your head.

    If you only rehearse inside your head you’ll have no experience dealing with imperfect conditions. If you rehearse out loud you’ll find out how you’ll deal with things like your cat jumping in your lap or your roommate bursting in to ask if she can borrow your deodorant. Dealing with these annoyances will teach you how to improve public speaking and strategies for dealing with the much larger annoyances that will happen when you give your talk (late audience member slamming the door, anyone?).

  2. Your brain will delude you into believing your talk is under time. Rehearsing outside your head will give you actual non-imaginative data about how long your talk really is. You know those folks who barely get past the introductory material before the moderator calls time? They rehearsed inside their heads. Their brains deluded them into thinking that their 30 minutes of material would only take 12 minutes to share.
  3. Your brain will convince you that every word is easy to pronounce. Rehearsing in real life, you’ll find out which words are tongue twisters when you say them out loud. Sometimes words you’ve never rehearsed come out embarrassingly wonky (ask me how I know.)
  4. Your brain will convince you that you have unlimited time to spend on introductory information.
    If you rehearse out loud, you’ll find out if you have spent too much time on introductory material (you have). If you practice out loud you can time each section of your talk and make SURE that you are spending most of your time on your research, not a boring literature review (yes, yes, those who have gone before are worthy of reference, but save that for your Oscar acceptance speech.)
  5. Your brain will convince you that you know exactly what you are going to say.
    By rehearsing outside your head, you’ll find out where you are actually unsure of what you want to say. It is WAAYYYY better to find out where your facts are a little muddy while rehearsing  in your apartment, than in the conference room they reserved for your job talk.
  6. You brain will convince you that you won’t get nervous.
    Photo of a male cat wearing a tuxedo jacket, with a female cat in heat in the background.
    It’s normal to feel nervous! A Nervous Groom, courtesy of Steve Jurvetson on flickr.

     Of course it will. Your brain doesn’t like it when you feel nervous. So it convinces you not to rehearse to avoid the feeling. We like to rehearse inside our heads so we don’t have to feel those unpleasant and awkward nerves. And that’s how we shoot ourselves in the foot – actually both feet and one knee. It is far, far better to rehearse, feel the nerves, practice dealing with the nerves, and be prepared for them than to get up to give a talk and have no experience at all dealing with the conjunction of this particular talk and the particular nerves it brings. Do not avoid rehearsal to avoid feeling bad. Allow yourself the time and space to feel the anxiety so you can ALSO practice strategies for dealing with it.

How to improve public speaking? Rehearse outside your Brain!


How do you like to rehearse for your science talks?  In the shower?  With a pet?  With a friend?  Avoid rehearsing at all costs?  Send me your stories, and I will reply to each and every one!

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