Speaking in front of a large audience can be a terrifying experience. Studies have shown that fear of speaking in public is stronger than the fear of death for many people.
Why do we put so much pressure on ourselves to appear perfect? I will offer some insight into the dilemma and share an alternate path that leads to lower stress and better performance. I will use public speaking as an example and then generalize the concept to cover many other areas of our lives.
When we think about why people get nervous in front of a large crowd, it seems pretty obvious. We are afraid we are going to goof up, so we practice our part over and over, attempting to perfect and polish our delivery so we do not look stupid in front of others. The irony is that, after a certain point, the more we attempt to perfect our speech, the more likely we are to actually flounder with our delivery.
I witnessed a professional speaker who was giving a presentation to over 1000 other professional speakers. Talk about pressure! She had practiced her speech so many times she was assured that she would not make a mistake. But when she faced the stage lights, all of her preparation and build up actually made her goof up. Reason: when she got flustered and messed up a word or two, then she forgot her place in the memorized text and stumbled badly.
Finally, in desperation, she pulled out a typed paper with the words. After reading a few lines, she put the paper away and tried to go back to the memorized material. The same thing happened again; she totally blanked out at the first misstep and had to resort to her printed text again. It happened a third time as well. I expect that day will live in her mind as an example of a disastrous day. The audience was uncomfortable as well, although we all supported her and had great empathy for her pain.
Think about the alternative, where she would know her content cold because it came from her heart, not her rote memory. All she needed were a few key points to recall the topic areas, and she could wax eloquent with no miscues. It was her desire to be perfect that led to her being embarrassingly imperfect.
Here is a stark contrast to the speaker described above. At that same speaker’s conference, Brian Tracy, the great author, speaker, and philosopher, was presented with a lifetime achievement award by the National Speakers Association. The award is the highest honor a speaker can receive, and Brian proceeded to demonstrate why he was worthy of the award.
He got up to give a 10-minute acceptance speech: one of the most important speeches of his life, out of thousands of speeches. As he started the speech, he had no idea what was about to happen to him. His lavaliere microphone started to die, and the audience could only hear every other word. Horrified, the sound technician rushed on stage with another lavaliere mic, and Brian carried right on as if nothing had happened. Two minutes later the replacement mic also died in the same way. Brian just stood there smiling at the audience until the technician came out with a hand held mic, and Brian was able to finish his speech.
He did not get flustered, or angry, or sad, he just stood there smiling until the situation had cleared. Doing that in front of 1000 professional speakers took real poise. Brian was even gracious to the bumbling technician, who was undoubtedly dying a thousand deaths over the incident. Brian was sincerely grateful for the honor and was not about to let a cantankerous sound system mess up his moment.
My method of rehearsing a program is to mock up the platform and go over a program from my prepared key points a few times, but I make no attempt to memorize any part of the actual wording except for the very first sentence and the very end of the program. Brian Tracy taught me that the first sentence should be memorized verbatim. His reasoning was that “well begun is half done.” After the first sentence rings out, then it is as if I am having a natural conversation with the assembled group like I was talking with a friend over the kitchen table. This method allows me to be more authentic and relaxed. If I make a mistake and stumble, it is not the end of the world at all, I just look for ways to make it humorous.
Seth Godin had a blog entry I read recently about the same concept. He wrote, “Perfecting your talk, refining your essay, and polishing your service until all elements of you disappear might be obvious tactics, but they remove the thing we were looking for: you.” He even implied that some top performers inject some kind of faux imperfection in their routine because it tends to endear them to the audience. Personally, I don’t need to inject imperfections in my programs; they have enough of them naturally. I am okay with an occasional goof, because it makes me more human and credible to my audiences, and that is a very positive thing. Somehow having them join me in laughing at myself is a kind of bonding action with the audience.
The same kind of problem exists for all of us in many different areas of our lives. By trying to be perfect (which we are not) we put immense pressure on ourselves. We get uptight as we try to rehearse every possible situation and then lose our train of thought in the complexity of the moment. For example, the other day I was at a very formal dinner, and I was trying to put on my best manners. In my attempt to be perfect and charming, I was paying more attention to the conversation than to what my hands were doing, and I spilled a full gravy boat of salad dressing all over the table. Oops!
When we put too much pressure on ourselves to be perfect, we tend to cause the very thing we are trying to prevent. The antidote is to simply be yourself with all your warts and problems. Relax, so you can roll with the situation naturally, and you will come out ahead most of the time. People are going to forgive you, even though you feel totally embarrassed at the time. The trick is to think about the major issues, but not try to work out the fine detail in advance. Let your natural self take care of the fine grain actions. Know your material but avoid over preparation.
We need to understand that nobody goes through life without making some embarrassing gaffes. What makes the difference is how we react when an unexpected snafu occurs. If we are calm and make light of our foible, the incident will pass, and our long term credibility will be intact with the embarrassing moment nothing more than a humorous footnote: like my spilled salad dressing.
Try this big-picture method of preparing yourself for your next important meeting, speech, or social event. If you prepare and then relax to present naturally, you will usually come out just fine. If you are not good at coming up with a funny line after a mistake, then try taking some improvisation classes. They will help you become more spontaneous with humor. Another organization that has great techniques is Toastmasters. Get involved with your local chapter.