Few people can engage an audience without preparing and practicing. Even presenters who look like they are speaking ‘off the cuff’, have usually prepared thoroughly— or have presented the same material many times previously.
When I first started as a public speaking coach, I stressed the importance of good preparation. But I noticed that some people would still turn up unprepared. And they often started their presentation by telling us that they hadn’t prepared.
I realized that they were using this as a ‘get of jail card free card’. If they told us how unprepared they were and it didn’t go well, they could always blame their lack of preparation. It was an excuse for failure. But it was also self-sabotage.
And so, I doubled down on my preparation message. I even suggested that if people turned up unprepared, they shouldn’t tell us!
Then I started noticing something else. While I always have a few unprepared clients, the majority spend so much time preparing that they become rigidly fixated on what they have prepared. They often memorize or read their script. They don’t sound natural, spontaneous, or conversational. And my preparation message was potentially making this worse.
I started to soften my stance on preparation. But it still wasn’t right because I was taking a middle road that failed to cater adequately for either extreme. And many of my clients were at one of these extremes.
Procrastination and perfectionism can have the same root cause
One day I was listening to a conversation on Sam Harris’s “Waking Up” app. If you are not familiar with Sam Harris, he is a neuroscientist and philosopher. His mediation app covers much more than just mediation. It includes conversations with other meditation practitioners, philosophers and teachers.
This particular conversation was with the Leo Babauta, author of the blog “Zen Habits”. Leo explained that, when people fear something, they tend to do one of three things — avoid, procrastinate, or seek perfection.
Bingo. I had my explanation! All of my clients fear public speaking. Many of them have spent years trying to avoid it. But they have finally decided to tackle their fear.
And when they do my course, many of them exhibit — depending on personality type — as perfectionists or procrastinators. These seemingly opposite behaviours derive from the same source — a fear of public speaking.
And so now I explain it like this.
I tell people that many of the people who do my courses are either over-preparers or under-preparers.
Under-preparers are procrastinators. They know they have a presentation looming but delay preparing until it is too late. They turn up on the day and try to ‘wing it’. They often ramble and talk for longer than they need. If they have notes, these are usually unstructured and unhelpful — and so they abandon them.
Over-preparers are perfectionists. Being a perfectionist is about control in the face of fear. They attempt to control every aspect of the situation so that nothing can go wrong. Their presentations are often well crafted, but the delivery is self-conscious or unengaging.
These habits have short term rewards — but they are costly in the long-term
The reward for the over-preparer or perfectionist is avoiding disaster because they can resort to reading their notes if necessary.
There are short term rewards for the under-preparer too — they don’t have to put in the effort. And as I said before, they have a ready-made excuse when things go badly.
However; neither habit is conducive to a great presentation. Equally, neither habit will help the speaker deal with the fear of public speaking. The perfectionist can’t be confident of presenting without reading notes or spending hours memorizing, and the procrastinator is always terrified that their presentation will turn into a train wreck!
Both habits can be hard to break
For the under-preparer, it sounds simple. All they need to do is to prepare more. But this takes effort — and there is the risk of failure! Although I have some success with the strategy of suggesting they refrain from telling us that they are unprepared, it is quite hard to shift someone who likes to ‘wing it’.
The perfectionist has to be willing to relinquish some control. They need to believe that less preparation might improve their performance, even though it feels risky. They have to trust that they will find the right words on the day, or that it won’t be a disaster if they don’t. But they find this hard because losing control is their worst fear.
Understanding how preparation works can be helpful
In the case of public speaking, a moderate amount of preparation and practice will make a huge difference. But continuing to practice, has diminishing returns — and it can even have negative returns.
To explain why, I need the help of Tim Urban, author of the “Wait but Why” blog.
In his blog article, Doing a TED Talk — the Full Story, Tim suggests that there are three approaches to planning for a presentation. They are, ‘wing it’, talk through a set structure, or stick to a script.
For obvious reasons, Tim does not recommend winging it — the procrastinator’s preferred approach!
Tim recommends the second approach — talking through a set structure — for most occasions. It requires you to be very familiar with the content of your presentation and the order of your points. But you don’t have to remember each the exact words.
How about the third approach, to follow a script? This sounds great to the perfectionist, but the problem is, to pull it off, you have to memorize the script to what Tim calls ‘Happy-Birthday-level’ memorization. In other words, you have to be as familiar with your script as you are with the song “Happy Birthday”! Your alternatives are to read the script, which is boring, or ‘just barely memorize’, which sounds unnatural.
Let’s take a further look at what this means for the under-prepared procrastinator and the over-prepared perfectionist.
A little preparation and practice will allow you to talk through a ‘set structure’. This approach will yield great results and requires minimal effort compared to memorizing a script to ‘Happy-Birthday-level’. Combine this understanding with a commitment not to say, “I haven’t practiced,” and the procrastinator might have the incentive to do a bit of practice!
For the perfectionist, it is helpful to understand that if you are going to memorize a presentation, you will need to practice much more than you think.
You will get most of the benefits of practicing a presentation by going through it out loud, three or four times. For the majority of situations, this is the preparation sweet spot. If you continue practicing, you may not improve. That’s because you are ‘just barely memorizing’. Quite likely, you would need to practice a presentation 100 times or more to know it thoroughly. It might be worth it for a TED talk — many TED speakers do memorize their talks — but for most other purposes this is a waste of my time.
Applying this to other things in your life
If you are still with me, it is probably because you recognize one of these habits. And perhaps you respond in the same way in any situation where preparing will increase your chances of success but not guarantee it — like a job interview or an exam.
Maybe you self-sabotage by leaving things to the last minute or seek to control things you cannot fully control by preparing well past the point where the benefits are clear.
My natural tendency is to over-prepare. For example, when I am not 100% satisfied with aspects of my course content, I have an urge to revise (yet again!). But I remind myself that the content is already good and that I am better to spend my time on other things like marketing, blogging, or client relationships.
Recognizing that procrastination and perfectionism can be opposite responses to a fear of failure, was a light-bulb moment for me.
Hopefully, this article has helped you understand that by shifting your behaviour slightly, you can achieve significant gains. Being prepared to put in a little more effort or learning to let go just a little, will help you find the preparation sweet spot. Although my focus has been on public speaking, you may also be able to apply these principles to other aspects of your life.
Article by Catherine Syme
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