You are probably wasting a lot of time practicing. I’m guilty. Most people I’ve coached fall into two categories, perfectionists and procrastinators–and it’s not unusual that the procrastinators actually do better.
If you are a perfectionist, like me, you know what it’s like to rehearse your script, expressions, and presentation skills. Over and over and over, you reorganize, reword, and repeat.
I think people deserve my best. I want it done right. I want it done better. And I don’t want to look foolish.
After all, that’s what they tell you to do isn’t it? Stand in front of the mirror, stand in front of a coach, stand in front of a video, and practice? At times, I’ve spent hours practicing just a 2 minute story.
It’s one of my great weakness, I practice wrong.
How practice works
If you are consciously thinking about every note you play on an instrument, or consciously thinking about every touch of the ball in the game, or consciously thinking about where to put your feet in the dance, then you need more practice.
Thinking takes too long!
You and I both know that when you have to consciously think about everything, you actually perform worse. However, when you’re “in the zone,” “in the flow”, or “on fire” you do the right thing intuitively.
Practice trains your brain to make the right decision without thinking. Whatever you practice becomes automatic.
When practice works
If you are a tennis player, it makes sense to practice swatting anything that is thrown at you, even if it’s out of a machine, because in a real game you want to react intuitively when the ball is “thrown” at you.
If you are a chef, it makes sense to practice cooking, because there is no difference between practice and reality. Chef practice is not “virtual cooking” on a simulator. The chef cooks real food and tastes real food.
When the performance is scripted, more practice will get you closer to the target.
When practice fails
If you are a speaker and practicing in front of a mirror, you are training your brain to perform intuitively every time you stand in front of a mirror. Just one problem, have you ever spoken to an audience of mirrors?
In public speaking, the performance is never the same as the “practice.”
Recently, I coached someone in a speaking competition. She did absolutely amazing in front of my video camera. When it came time to perform in front of live judges, suddenly she lost energy and started forgetting words.
If you are a performer, go ahead and practice. Rehearse, refine, repeat. But how often in real life are you actually “performing?”
If you are a communicator, STOP “PRACTICING” performance and start practicing communication!
The Right Way: Audiences
When I say stop “practicing,” I mean stop practicing the traditional way–alone, or with the same person over and over.
The only way you can train your brain to be “in the zone” in front of a live audience is to have “experience” in front of different live audiences.
No matter how many times the Browns play the Bengals it will never quite prepare them to play the Steelers.
Here’s the secret they aren’t telling you. The professional speaker you love sounds like he prepared his remarks just for you. He speaks so effortlessly. He sounds so natural and gifted. He’s not.
The difference: The amateur practices the story 200 different times in front on the wall. The professional has experimented with the story in front of 200 different audiences.
The professionals are not practicing the speech, they are experimenting with the audiences.
The amateurs are performing, the professionals are communicating–and analyzing the response.
You know that extroverted guy who always tells funny stories around the office? He seems so natural and gifted. Let me tell you something he won’t admit. He’s actually been testing the story with his friends, family, and other close associates before he tells it to you. It’s not as spontaneous as he wants you to believe.
You don’t need practice, you need experience, and experience requires a real audience.
The Right Way: Principles
But I don’t have a real live audience in my basement! I don’t have an agent booking me “experimental audiences” on the weekend.
Once of my clients, a C-level executive at a multi-billion dollar company confided in me that he doesn’t really practice. Every fifteen minutes of his life is scheduled months in advance and he doesn’t have time.
You probably don’t have hours to practice a script either. Nevertheless, just like this executive, you do communicate with real people all day long.
He has plenty of opportunity to experiment, because the goal is not to practice a script, the goal is to practice communication skills.
These experiments will make you a great communicator. Just like ball handling skills during team “practice” are the same as ball handling skills during the game, the fundamental principles of communication apply in both informal one-on-one communication and formal communication on stage.
I’ve heard several professional speakers brag that they can prepare an hour keynote in 5 minutes. It’s not because they memorize a script, it’s because they have experience with the fundamentals.
The procrastinators are better than the perfectionists, but only if they have experimented with the fundamentals.
How to Practice Effectively
1. Identify a skill
The simplest way to do this is simply to pick one of the 8 SpeechDeck principles. If you want something more specific, each colored SpeechDeck principle card breaks the principle down into 3 communication skills. Choose one.
2. Find an audience
If you have access to rotary clubs, toastmaster clubs, swimming clubs, book clubs, Sunday school classes, and study groups, or you supervise a team of I-have-to-listen-because-the-boss-said-so coworkers, then you are fortunate to have a group audience to experiment on.
Even without the group, you have an audience with your lunch-mate, or whoever happens to be conversing with you in the hallway, or whatever stranger you “happened” to interact with in real life. No matter how small the audience, as long as there is an audience of one, you can still practice communication instead of performance recital.
3. Pick one technique and experiment
Just pick one SpeechDeck card and try it. You can practice the majority of communication techniques in one-on-one communication settings without the other person even knowing they are a guinea pig.
It won’t work for me
I know you have doubts. How can experimenting with a friend over lunch make you better on stage in front of a group?
Because you are “practicing ” communication with a person, instead of practicing recitation to a mirror.
Instead of being “in the zone” with a video camera your will be “in the zone” with an audience, and they will see you as a gifted communicator instead of a practiced performer.
Beware though; these experiments only help if you add steps 4 and 5 after the experiment.
4. Consciously tell yourself what works.
5. Consciously tell yourself what failed and articulate a new experiment.
As you try the same technique with lots of different people, it only becomes automatic if your brain sees the results. You have to articulate those results to yourself so that your brain actually learns the concepts.
If public speaking without “practicing” sounds scary, I understand. I still waste more time than I should perfecting my presentations.
You, of course, have to do a minimum amount of “practice” until you know the material, but try spending any additional time experimenting with principles instead of practicing a script.
You know darn well, that even with hours of practice it still doesn’t feel quite right. If you know that, then you must realize that something about that traditional practice isn’t working. Be brave, and try something new: practice different principles and different audiences, not script.
That’s one of the main concepts behind SpeechDeck. I pull one principle, or one card out of the deck before I walk into a meeting and just experiment with that one skill. It takes less than 5 minutes, and I’m practicing fundamentals at every opportunity. Over time, I get better with very little effort.
From Mediocrity to Mastery
At my second public speaking opportunity 3 years later, many family friends were literally speechless, unable to understand how my awkward, introverted self transformed into a captivating speaker.
It didn’t take years of “practice.” I didn’t give a single speech during those years. What made the difference was learning the correct principles.
If your goal is to rise above mediocrity, applying correct principles is all it takes. Principles, not practice, is what raises you from mediocrity to competence.
The first time I entered a Toastmaster competition I won at every level up to the state-level (district) competition. That was possible without ever having competed before, because I used the correct principles.
The reason I didn’t win and go on to the international competition is, in part, because I practiced too much. After seeing my “performance” at the state-level competition an acquaintance commented that I seem “too rehearsed.”
When you “practice” a speech instead of practicing an audience you become a broken recording, unable to connect with real people.
Practicing scripts will make you look like a mediocre performer.
Practicing principles will take you from Mediocrity to competence.
Experimenting with real audiences will take you the rest of the way, from communication competence to communication mastery.