Supercompetent Speaking: Is It Possible to Rehearse Too Much?

There are cases when mistakes in the way you rehearse, if not corrected ASAP, can cause you to flub your presentation and damage your credibility.

Newer speakers often ask, “Is it possible to rehearse a presentation too much?” They’ve heard of “over-rehearsing” to the point of memorization and don’t want to fall victim to it. True, I’ve personally seen seasoned speakers “choke” on the platform, because they’ve lost their “place” in a memorized speech and couldn’t go on. So I wish I could categorically say, “No,” to this question, but few things in life are so easily answered, so I’ll answer by saying, “Not really, but…”

Most people will never have to worry about over-rehearsing a presentation; in fact, most people don’t rehearse enough. In general, the more practice, the better. The cast of a Broadway play rehearses 10-plus hours a day for 4 to 8 weeks before the opening. Rehearsing your brief speech over and over probably won’t cause you to lose your edge—it probably will make it better—so don’t worry about that.

That said, there are cases when mistakes in the way you rehearse, if not corrected ASAP, can cause you to flub your presentation and damage your credibility. I can think of two specific cases where too much rehearsal can come back to bite you:

  1. Going over it in your mind too much. Mental rehearsal isn’t really too much rehearsal as much as it’s the wrong type of rehearsal. Going over everything point by point in your head is not just as good as a live rehearsal. For one thing, when you rehearse in your mind, you don’t have to worry about real-life things like acoustics, filler words, poor phrasing, audience response, and balky equipment, because you can make everything perfect. In real life, it never goes this perfectly. When you practice “live,” you notice things like the wrong cadence or timing and correct them easily. Sure, you can go over your presentation in your head as you structure it, and it never hurts to refine the presentation by presenting it mentally. However, you’ll also need to rehearse the entire presentation audibly (what I call “talk to the wall,” instead of “talk to the hand,” like we used to say as teens). Practice your speech aloud, verbally, with your slides, multiple times, so you can get all the real-life factors as close to perfect as possible. Never assume you can just wing it based on your mental preparation, unless you’ve given the presentation many times before.
  2. Rehearsing more than once on presentation day. Take one last practice run on the big day, and then go into your presentation. If you haven’t gotten it down by the day of the presentation, you don’t have time to get it right at the last minute. If you’ve already rehearsed many times and branded the presentation into your memory, then don’t worry; you’ll do fine. Rehearsing too much on the day of the presentation may just make you edgy, affecting aspects of your performance such as pronunciation and body language.

Bottom line, it’s very hard to over-rehearse—if you actually rehearse the presentation live ahead of time, rather than in your head the day of. If you do that, your audience may detect it in your body language; you’re likely to be ill at ease and uncertain. You may be one of those rare people who can speak well off the cuff, but such people tend to be rare. Most of us can present well only with practice—which means lots of rehearsal, or plenty of experience with a particular presentation. But when the latter becomes stale, develop a new presentation—and rehearse it appropriately.

Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, is an expert in productivity. For more than 20 years, Stack has worked with business leaders to execute more efficiently, boost performance, and accelerate results in the workplace. Her company, The Productivity Pro, Inc., provides productivity workshops around the globe to help attendees achieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time. Stack is the bestselling author of six books, with more than 20 foreign editions, published by Random House, Wiley, and Berrett-Koehler, including her newest work, “Execution IS the Strategy” (March 2014). An expert in the field of performance and workplace issues, Stack has been featured on the CBS Early Show, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. Connect via her website, Facebook, or Twitter.