Practice does not make perfect

Every time we work with clients on presentation and communication skills, from college students to research scientists to engineers, when we’re doing training, we give real-life examples and opportunities for practice. People love it. As scared as they may be to stand up and give a presentation, the confidence they gain from doing it and getting immediate feedback is incredible.

Sometimes I wonder if The Mathews Group should start a service in airports where business travelers could stop in and run through their presentations. We could help them tweak their content, presence and visual aids to get to that next level of greatness. You may laugh, but the practice sessions are that popular.

During a recent presentation training for engineering students at the Miami University Lockheed Martin Leadership Institute in Oxford, Ohio, I was reminded anxiety around public speaking often comes from pursuit of an unachievable ideal. It’s called “perfect.” We want our presentations to be perfect.

But as I told the room full of future engineers, perfect isn’t a thing…

We can’t make any presentation perfect.

There’s better. There’s great. But there is no perfect.

Perfect would mean your presentation was without flaws. The harsh truth is that your presentation will be flawed because people have flaws. That’s part of what makes people, and presentations, interesting. Nobody wants to listen to an automaton. It’s boring.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting going to super-flawed status and just getting up there in front of your audience and saying whatever comes to mind without planning and forethought. Your presentation should be organized, engaging, accurate, well-presented, and inspire your audience. But there will always be flaws. Technology will fail you. Someone may fall asleep because they were up all night with a newborn, or taking the red-eye, or partying. You may have to adjust your timing on the fly and skip through some slides. You may say “y’all” as you’re coming up with a real–life example or the dreaded “um” as you are answering a question from the audience.

You – and I – should constantly work toward “perfect,” without any expectations of achieving it. You should make sure everything is ready. You should use powerful language without fillers. But it’s not the end of the world if you should happen to say “yeah” in the Q&A or if the audio system breaks and you have to use external speakers and have dozens of people gather ‘round your podium to hear the audio on a really powerful video. (Happened to me. True story.)

Even practicing your presentation over and over can’t help you avoid Murphy’s Law.

Practice can – and should – get you to the best you can be.

The good news is that’s really what people want: your best. You being confidently, authentically you and giving them accurate, truthful, interesting, useful or entertaining information.

So practice alone. Practice in front of the mirror. Call a friend and practice. Have your coworkers give you feedback. Practice in front of the dog. Get friends and family to be a guinea pig audience. Or get an actual guinea pig. Practice with props and without.

Practice enough that your delivery is natural, your inflections are genuine and you can vary your tone and volume naturally. Practice so that you’re confident enough to roll with those little unexpected twists and challenges that can – and will – happen in any presentation.

Practice, practice, practice. And then, go be wonderfully imperfect.

Photo credit: Fragola Productions