Monday, June 20, 2011

From the vault: Do you over-prepare for presentations?

(Here's a revised and updated post that first appeared on the blog in 2008.) A woman in one of my recent communications workshops asked, "What do you recommend for me? My problem is that I overprepare for my talks." Her choice of words labeled it a problem (perhaps because others had said that to her), but when I asked why she thinks she does that, she said, "I have to. I'm a perfectionist."

I've heard many speakers, men and women, say they overprepare before speeches. My take: It's a form of performance anxiety, stemming from a real or imagined challenger, the sense that they're not really qualified to speak as an authority, or other fears. And since nothing's perfect, the perfectionist is really setting herself up to fail, in effect. You may think it just signals your excellent intent, but it's a sign that someone will wind up disappointed.

While I'm all about preparation as the key to giving an eloquent speech or presentation, when preparation adds to the pressure you feel, it's time to revise your pre-speaking plans. Here are some tactics to try:
  • Remember that most presentations and speeches don't succeed due to nuances of content. While you're checking and re-checking your facts ahead of time, remember that the audience won't know what you left out--and you may find that leaving some facts for the Q&A is a more useful approach, anyway. 
  • Redefine what you can accomplish. Few speakers are given enough time to display every fact they know--so why feel compelled to memorize them all? Use your remarks to tell your audience the focus and scope: "There are so many issues we could consider, but today I'm going to take a close look at..." When questioners raise other issues, you can acknowledge them--but remind them of today's focus.
  • Stop over-preparing to meet your own mark: If it's for you, the perfectionist, keep in mind that you can't win that contest--in a sense, declaring your perfectionism means you'll never be good enough in your own eyes. Try this trick: Deliver your next speech without the extra preparation, and see whether anyone notices, besides yourself. If you do fine without it, why keep doing it?
  • Imagine your worst enemy in the audience: If you over-prepare because someone might rise to challenge you, use your preparation time to imagine the issues and develop some calm, thoughtful answers. I train speakers to think of the questions they want, the questions they expect and the questions they fear--and the answers for each. 
  • Put stress relief into your preparation: Taking care of the speaker is the speaker's job, so make sure you are well fed, rested and hydrated before you speak. Don't drink stimulants or beverages that will dry out your throat, like caffeine or alcohol. Step into the restroom, hallway or a nearby stairwell to stretch your arms and legs and do some deep breathing beforehand.
If you're an over-prepared speaker, consider this: The time you spend going over and over your content could be spent learning new speaker skills, like handling tough questions extemporaneously, gesturing, speaking without slides or text, and more. Leave us a comment to explain why you over-prepare, if you do, and what you've done to overcome it.

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