For the longest time, I couldn’t understand why a few people I coached were so resistant to the process. After all, they had come to me to become a better, more confident and compelling speaker. They articulated the reasons why they needed and wanted to be better. They saw where their speaking skills needed improvement when we watched them on video.
But when we started the work, it was a litany of excuses. “I’m actually not comfortable standing with my feet like that.” “Why are you teaching me how to breathe?” “That’s just the way I talk.” I did my best to find new approaches, prioritize, and be sensitive to real issues while gently pushing them to genuine improvement. Still, though, I was perplexed as to why they had come to me in the first place if they were only going to argue and make excuses.
And then I started guitar lessons. You know what’s really hard? Learning to play the guitar. Also, writing. Painting. Being a great speaker. Anything that looks easy probably isn’t. I heard myself say, as my guitar teacher patiently helped me move my fingers into position for a C chord again and again, “My hands are really small, so this is going to be hard.” He nodded, and kept going. “I’m not sure I can get my fingernails short enough.” Nod, more C chord.
I was doing it! I was doing what I complained about my coaching clients doing! I was making excuse after excuse about why this thing I wanted to do, that I had sought out, was just going to be too hard. When faced with the reality of the long, slow process of practicing before I could create sounds anyone would want to hear, I quickly made excuses for why I wasn’t already good at it.
No one is a consistently good speaker without practice. No one. Even great actors can come across as unprepared and unintelligent in an awards acceptance speech or hosting Saturday Night Live if they don’t log in some time practicing. Seasoned public speakers practice for weeks and days before keynote speeches. The President practices the State of the Union speech for hours so he can be clear and compelling and not show that he is using a teleprompter.
Now, presumably you’re not about to accept an Oscar or give the State of the Union. But I contend that we have an obligation to be as clear, authentic, and powerful as possible, no matter our audience. Reading at a wedding, introducing another speaker, even a presentation to a group you work with daily is more effective and runs less chance of miscommunication if you prepare, plan, and practice. Honor your audience by practicing what you’re going to say to them.
I recently had an initial meeting with a new coaching client, an impressive young man. As we were wrapping up, I asked, “Are you nervous about doing this work?” Without missing a beat, he said, “Yes. You know, it would be a lot easier to keep doing what I’ve been doing—reading from my notes, being a mediocre speaker. But I’m willing to put in the time to practice and become good at this, to become someone who looks for opportunities to speak rather than avoiding them.” Whoa. Looks like it’s time for me stop making excuses and learn that C chord.