Rehearsing To Be Human

Written by David Pullan

Rehearsing To Be Human

Here are two statements that I often hear when I am working on major bids. 

  1. 'I don’t want to rehearse too much in case the presentation becomes stilted.’
  2. ‘Our single biggest defining feature is our people.’

Today I’d like to think about how well structured rehearsals, rather than too much rehearsal, can heighten the free flow of a pitch and increase the way in which the people who are bidding are perceived.

When I made my living as an actor I was very taken with the work of the American teacher Sanford Meisner. His definition of acting was the ability to ‘behave truthfully under imaginary circumstances.’

While a competitive tender is far from a set of imaginary circumstances, I would also say that the stress that can arise in these situations often creates a space where we are so worried about winning that we feel we need to be something other than our authentic self. In other words, the inherent pressure and expectation means that we stop communicating naturally. 

So the question is, ‘How can people behave truthfully and authentically in these circumstances so that their full potential shines through?’

This is where well structured rehearsing comes into play.

For many actors the rehearsal process is one of the most wonderful parts of the job. In fact if you’d seen some of my reviews you could argue that rehearsals were THE most wonderful part of the job. After that it all went horribly wrong.

Rehearsals tend to follow a distinct process that goes from exploration to automisation and through to humanisation…if that is even a word. 

In the first instance it is about exploring options. What world are we inhabiting, what style are we going for, what is the author trying to achieve? 

Then comes the hard slog; the bit where you just have to learn the lines so that they become second nature and automatic in terms of recall.

Finally, and most importantly, comes the period of time when you get to play with the text in the world that you have created. You are so at home with the production concepts and the author’s words that you can look your fellow actors in the eye and know that whatever is thrown at you, you will be able to respond authentically and openly within the given circumstances. You behave with real humanity and truth in a set of stressful and imaginary circumstances. 

All in all this process takes anywhere between three and twelve weeks depending on budget and ethos of the company. Most corporate rehearsals take place over a very short time span in snatched breaks from ‘the real job.’.

So how can a corporate team rehearse smartly in order to come over as clear, energetic and human?

Well of course you have to start with the exploration phase. In my experience pitching teams are pretty good at this and are very adept at analysing the audience and working out the necessary stories that need to be told.

It’s the automisation and humanisation phase that often gets misinterpreted, side lined or missed altogether. 

The problem starts when a presenter thinks that their message is all about creating well crafted sentences, then goes away to write a script and learns it by heart.

Now the issue with this is that I have yet to meet a corporate presenter who is a really good script writer. If they were then they would probably be sitting on the beach at Santa Monica pitching their latest blockbuster to James Cameron while sipping a mojito. 

What corporate presenters are very good at generally is writing fact heavy documents that impart a huge amount of detail. It’s really important to remember that document writing is NOT spoken word writing. Spoken word needs facts of course, but it needs story and emotion more than anything.

Once the script has been written the poor old presenter goes a way to learn it word perfectly as if they are entering a memory competition. 

Well, I hate to break it to you, but your words in a pitch aren’t Shakespeare, and nobody cares if you’ve learned them perfectly or not.

Of course your clients care about your messages, but they care even more about whether you are a trustworthy and credible human who they want to work with.

The problem with learning words and then worrying about whether you get them right or not is that you will always be talking to your script instead of talking to the audience. You won’t leave yourself any space in which to respond naturally and influence the way your client thinks, feels and behaves. 

To overcome this I recommend that you think about structuring your rehearsals in this way.

  1. Start with the audience analysis and decisions about the overall structure. 
  2. Write bullet points for your messages rather than full scripts and discover the stories that will prove your points. I’ve  always like the ‘Friends’ method of bullet pointing where you merely write something like ‘The one where I helped x increase their ROI against all odds.’ Practice telling these stories simply and clearly in your own words.
  3. Leave plenty of time for humanising the presentation. This means working on the connection and interaction with your fellow presenters. It also means responding to anything that happens in the moment. This could involve being able to improvise and keep on message if you have a question thrown at you. But it will also include being able to respond to any clues you might get from the audience regarding interest and comprehension. If they look bored, lost, or frustrated how are you going to adjust what you say in order to keep them engaged. You will only be able to do this if you have spent the time getting 100% comfortable and automatic with your messages, trusted yourself to tell them in your own words and then worked on showing your full human potential under stressful circumstances. 

Follow this method and you will develop the three key elements of clarity, energy and humanity.

Stop at learning your lines and you’ll merely look like someone who is trying to be perfect and slick rather than human and connected.


photo credit: <a href="">;Kronborg-086</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">(license)</a>


  • W B Yeats

    'Think like a wise man, but communicate in the language of the people.'