What does it take to be perfect? Quite a bit, it turns out.
When Romanian gymnast Nadia Comeneci scored a perfect 10 at the 1976 Olympics, it represented the culmination of years of intense practice. Comaneci trained for eight hours a day, six days a week–all at the age of 12.
For the rest of us, though, Olympic-level training isn’t always feasible, or advisable. But when we’re nervous and the stakes are high, we tend to push for perfection, fearing that anything less would mean failure. What would it actually take to achieve a perfect 10–by your own standards or anyone else’s–in your speaking? And what happens when you find out you’ll actually have only 10 minutes to present instead of the 20 you thought you would? What if you have to give a big talk to an important audience on the fly, without any notice at all–can you be perfect then?
The truth is that trying to do your best is one thing, but striving to absolutely nail it may set you up for failure, especially when it comes to speaking. Here’s how trying to deliver a talk as perfectly as you’ve prepared it might not turn out that well, and what you should do instead.
If you prepare your presentation too rigorously, chances are you’ll edit out your rhythm. You may focus on trying to be as precise as possible, so your words are meticulously manicured. But because you’re concentrating on getting the words right, you slow down your speaking. You pause and fixate on individual phrases rather than the meaning of what you’re saying. The result is often a flat, artificial, over-articulated delivery that’s boring to listen to.
Your rhythm is also interrupted because you’re trying to remember exactly what you practiced the night before rather than being in the moment now. To both be in the moment and deliver perfect lines takes a very skilled actor–and yes, that means years of training in live performance. Start from the understanding that (in all likelihood, anyway), that isn’t you–and that’s okay. Instead, concentrate on the meaning of what you want to get across, and the words will flow naturally.
When your goal is to speak perfectly, you tend to be obsessive about every mistake you make. I’ve worked with clients preparing for high-stakes presentations, and they typically point out every single “mistake,” no matter how minuscule: “Oh, see how I paused there?”; “Right there—I moved my mouth in a weird way”; “I couldn’t remember my line for a second there.”
Instead of thinking about the overall impact they’re making on their listeners, they become hyper-analytical, thinking that that’s the key to improving their performance–when in reality, it’s undermining it. They are relentlessly beating themselves up, totally losing the spirit of spontaneity that’s crucial for speaking compellingly.
Over-preparing for a presentation can cause you to lose the connection with your feelings. You’re too busy observing yourself–judging, adjusting, and correcting every move, word, and gesture. You’re concentrating on your mechanics, not your message. To communicate your ideas with real conviction, you need to stay in tune with your emotions. You have to feel confident and believe in what you’re saying if you expect others to believe it, too.
So remember, unlike an Olympic gymnast who can score a perfect 10 with expertly choreographed moves, your goal shouldn’t be to be perfect. You goal is to speak with power and purpose, authentically–every day.