You may have noticed that some things are easier to plan to practice than to actually, you know, practice. “I’ve blocked out time on my calendar every day this week to practice my speech!” Easy. “I practiced my presentation every day this week!” Hard.
About five weeks ago my family got a puppy—a real, licky, waggy, bitey, pee-on-your-rugs puppy. Her name is Ollie, and she is my brand-new love.
Yesterday, we had a session with a puppy trainer. What I didn’t fully realize when we decided to get a puppy was that it’s a lot like having a toddler—you can’t leave them alone, and they make their own rules. Having never had a puppy before, our approach to getting her to learn our rules had been pretty ad hoc.
The trainer (also named Angie, oddly enough) asked us a lot of questions, then laid out a precise practice plan to get the results we want, i.e. more of the behavior we love and none of the behavior we don’t. We were excited! A plan!
Within four hours of getting home from the visit with the trainer, we had a much clearer understanding of what this plan means. It means stopping what you’re doing every hour on the hour to take Ollie out. It means stopping what you’re doing to correct her behavior with a time-out, then stopping again to get her out of the time-out. It means having a constant mindset of practice—keeping the end goal in mind, while we all (not just the puppy) learn a new way of being.
Practice is disruptive. It’s easier and often more comfortable to do the thing you’ve always done. Practicing a new skill can feel like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the mountain—you get almost there and have to start over. But unlike that doomed Greek man, your practice gets you a few steps closer to your goal every time, even if you can’t tell yet.
Not practicing? That’s going to get you a lot of chewed furniture and wet rugs.
One of the questions I like to ask coaching clients is “What do you do when you practice?” More often than not, I get a confused look in response.
So I clarify:
“Do you start at the beginning and go all the way through your presentation? Do you stand up? Do you use your PowerPoint deck? Do you look at yourself in a mirror? Do you get feedback from someone?”
In his book “Talent Is Overrated,” Geoff Colvin talks about the concept of “deliberate practice.” When we practice with intention, we are setting out to improve something specific, and we focus on that area. As Colvin points out, professional athletes don’t practice by playing entire games or matches—they do drills, they watch video of their previous performances, they get targeted feedback from a coach, and then they set out to improve the areas that will make them better athletes.
As speakers, we want to do the same thing. After you create your presentation, do it for a friend or family member, and video it. Get feedback from your audience and watch yourself. How did you do? Where did you excel? What are one or two things you could work on to be even better?
Once you identify these areas, create some drills for yourself. If you and your feedback partner noticed that you took a while to get going, work on your introduction. If it was going gangbusters until the end, work on your closing.
“Practice” doesn’t have to mean closing your office door and going through the whole thing from beginning to end. Often we put off practicing because it feels too monumental, so break it up into more manageable chunks. While you’re driving a familiar route, decide that you’ll practice just one part for the time it takes you to get from A to B. Then save B to C for another trip.
Then when you’ve done all that, put it together, with any technology you’ll be using, and run through the whole presentation at least once, remembering first and foremost the why of what you’re doing.
Good luck and happy practicing!