Public Speaking Confidence: How Perfection Isn't Always Helpful
If you are a perfectionist, then any form of public presentation is going to feel uncomfortable to you and can affect your public speaking confidence.
However, without striving for excellence your public presentation might become very uncomfortable for your audience.
The problem with a ‘perfectionist’ approach is the tendency to over-prepare so that the presentation becomes wooden and robotic.
The ideal balance is something called ‘planned spontaneity'.
Planned Spontaneity to Help with Public Speaking Confidence
Planned Spontaneity is a way to get a clear idea of what you want to say without being too rigid about the exact words you use to say it.
My father, as a professional violinist, used to say either you or your audience is probably going to suffer, but it should never be both at the same time.
For a perfectionist the urge is to prepare everything to try to make it ‘perfect’; however, almost all presentations require a degree of interaction and flexibility.
If the presentation is too well rehearsed, it may appear stiff and inflexible.
I remember a cello teacher telling me that there is a big difference between preparing for a performance to go right, as opposed to preparing to try to stop it from going wrong.
Speaking in Public in Politics
Analysing a politician’s conference speech is always a little unfair because the very nature of the speech and its style usually lends itself to rigid self-consciousness.
Liz Truss’ speech as Environment Secretary to the Tory conference in 2014 has already become a popular meme for her ‘That is a disgrace!’ comment. But it is also a good example of how in an effort to get it exactly right (or maybe in an effort to stop it from going wrong) a speech can quickly feel over-thought and lose its flow and spontaneity.
Note the well-rehearsed pauses, the self-conscious smile to allow time for applause and the over-rehearsed gestures to punctuate firstly, the Harold MacMillan ‘you’ve never had it so good’ parody and then the self-conscious outrage punctuating the ‘that’s a disgrace’ comment.
However, in many aspects Liz Truss is doing everything absolutely right: the pace, the pauses and the punctuation of her words with emphatic gestures: note the rhetorical use of threes, particularly the ‘two-thirds of apples’, ‘nine-tenths of pears’ followed by the ‘two-thirds of cheese’ is excellent,
but then there is the big self-conscious pause before ‘that is a disgrace’, which is then followed by the extended frown to show that she is not happy. It all feels very staged.
The problem of course is this:
- too much planning = stiff and robotic
- not enough planning = unfocused and chaotic
The balance is often hard to achieve and therefore requires discovering the sweet spot of the speaking oxymoron ‘planned spontaneity’.
The Art of Being a Public Speaking Coach
The art of being a public speaking coach is to help each speaker find a balance for themselves. The skill is in helping them find and embed the key points, words and images that support their message. It is also in preventing those ‘perfectionists’ and those lacking in public speaking confidence (which in truth is probably all of us) from the urge to over-prepare every word.
As a presenter you have 3 presentations:
- The one you intend to give
- The one you actually give
- The one you wished you had given
Public Speaking Lessons in Schools
A few years ago, I was involved in a project bringing public speaking to secondary school children. I would find particularly among girls that at the age of fifteen there can be a very strong perfectionist trait (Those of you with teenage boys at home may feel that for them the opposite seems to be true). But often teenage girls are at a stage of development when everything needs to look perfect, seem perfect, be perfect.
And that will never be possible in public speaking.
Preparation to that degree will kill all life and spontaneity in the delivery. (It is similar to all of those over-posed attempts at a ‘natural-looking’ selfie).
At the school, I would offer them the question:
‘Do any of you here regard yourself as a bit of a perfectionist?’
All the hands would go straight up.
Then I’d say:
‘I fear today is not going to be a very happy experience for you’, not as some sort of sadist, but to get across an important message.
There Can Be No Perfection in Public Speaking
Public Speaking is often a messy business.
The urge to get it ‘just right’ will lead more often to over-rehearsal and stiffness, which makes the presentation worse.
Under normal circumstances, words don’t always come out right. We stumble as we speak.
However, I would go on to explain to them:
‘The only concession we have to perfectionism is in our structure and the clarity of our message. That is what we need to work on.
So, therefore, not:
‘Did I speak perfectly and annunciate every word properly?’
‘Did I get my message across clearly?’
I found that if I did not highlight this early on in the day I would find in the afternoon some students may manage to get through the first 90 seconds of their presentation ‘word-perfect’ but then inevitably stumble on some phrase or word.
And turning to me with a crest-fallen look on their face would ask:
‘Oh sir, can I start again?’
And I’d say:
‘If you really want to you can, but think about it, if I was in the playground with you and you were telling me about what you did over the weekend, you would not get 90 seconds into telling me something, make a mistake and ask to start again. You would just carry on. That is what we do under normal circumstances.’
Creating a Roadmap for Your Presentation
The only way to satisfy that perfectionist gene (assuming you have it) is to allow your perfectionism to be taken up in creating a very clear and simple roadmap of your presentation: one where you know the destination and all the key points along the way.
If you feel the need for greater control, then you can invest your time in thinking of different ways of getting from one key element to the next, so that rather than having a rigid, memorised route, you have a variety of prepared alternatives that lead you to the final destination.
Finding a Space for a Cadenza
Most classical solo concertos have a space for a ‘cadenza’ – a free section at the end of a movement where the soloist can show off their skills. Originally there was a principle of improvisation in this section, but increasingly as the level of expectation of technical perfection rose, these cadenzas would be learnt note for note.
A solution some soloists now take is to learn lots of interchangeable sections that they can assemble in performance in different orders so that on one level everything has been rehearsed and ‘perfected’, but on another level there is still that sense of freedom and improvisation in taking slightly different routes on different evenings, thereby keeping an element of freshness and spontaneity.
The Key to a Successful Presentation is Preparation
Preparation is still the key to a successful presentation. However, instead of striving toward an unrealistic, rigid ideal of the ‘perfect’ presentation, you should satisfy your perfectionist gene by increasing your flexibility and practising different routes to reach your goal.
Because at the end when you sit down again:
Will you have been word perfect? – Probably not
Will you have managed to reach your objective and covered your key points? – Hopefully Yes
And that is all that matters to us in the audience.