My old East German Cello teacher used to say to me that I need to know my pieces so well that he could wake me up at 4 in the morning, stick a cello between my legs and before I am even awake, I would be able to start playing. Just to reassure you he never actually did it. I think he was just trying to make a point.
A golden rule in speaking and training is to avoid learning your content off by heart, as:
- a, it loses any sense of spontaneity and flexibility;
- b, you run the risk of getting lost and breaking down;
- c, the delivery may become wooden and unnatural.
However, if there is one exception, that might be worth learning off by heart, the very opening. The opening of any presentation is one of those double whammy moments! It is when you are at your most vulnerable and your audience is at its most attentive. It is when all the cliches about first impressions come true. Once you have spluttered, stumbled and stuttered at the beginning, and made a less than positive first impression, it is very hard to fully recover.
Like most of us, I can become nervous before speaking. I sometimes have an almost out of body experience when I start. It is as if I am looking down on myself and listening from the outside. If I am listening from the outside and I hear myself delivering a good strong first line, I find it much easier to climb back inside myself and carry on with the presentation.
However, if I am not so impressed by what I hear, it is much harder to get back on board. Not for the sake of your audience, but for your own sake, it is vital to start well. A lot of public performance is about confidence and starting well is a great boost.
The opening of a presentation is like the steel toe-cap on a work boot or the front end of a rocket: it needs to be able to hold fast while taking the full impact of your nerves.
My favourite image to support that is of Shakespeare`s Mark Antony waiting to go on stage, thinking to himself:
Friends, Romans, Countrymen: Friends, Romans, Countrymen: Friends, Romans, Countrymen.
So that when he goes out into a fairly hostile atmosphere, he knows that he can deliver his first words virtually on automatic and in the process use those first few moments to adjust and acclimatise to his environment and the thousands of little pieces of information that are flooding his senses: the sound of his voice; the butterflies in the stomach, the unfriendly expression on the face of the man on the left; the itch on the back of the neck; the lady with an abnormally big nose - weird stuff!
I assume that is also what my cello teacher meant. You need to be well-enough prepared that you can start well in spite of yourself and all the new and strange stimuli flooding your senses.
So before you start: Go over those first few moments in your mind, picture a positive result and know that even when you are not feeling completely in control inside, muscle memory will get you through the opening moments until you are ready to take control of the steering wheel yourself and drive on to a successful conclusion!