©Arlene R. Taylor, PhD

articles 181025Is perfecting performance possible? It likely depends on your definition of perfecting, how well you know yourself, and whether you are up for the work. Performance can be defined as a public presentation or as the process of executing an action. In reality, a public presentation requires the execution of several actions—some in advance and others during the performance. Perfecting can be described as the process of improving, making something better, or polishing something.

A performance may begin with a personal desire, an educational requirement, a professional assignment, or a simple request. Obviously, it is wise to select a topic you know well from education, personal experience, and developed skills. It can be performance suicide to blather on about something for which you lack training, experience, or skills and are just blowing smoke in the wind. Basic strategies for success can apply to differing types of public presentations, although details may need to be tweaked with the help of a coach in your genre. Once you have gathered the necessary topical research, assembled a first draft of your presentation, and edited it for spelling, punctuation, word usage, and style, the real work of improving the performance begins. Although nothing humans do is absolutely flawless, performances by Zoom or in person can be improved.

Here are seven strategies to help you polish public speaking performances:

1. Use Actual and virtual rehearsal. You might begin by reading your script aloud so you gain an idea of how the audience will ‘hear’ it. Make it conversational, easy to follow and be understood. Define unfamiliar or scientific words. When you have made tweaks as necessary, “perform” it in front of a couple of family members or best friends. Ask them what worked and what didn’t. Once you have a final draft,  use virtual rehearsal. In your mind’s eye, picture yourself being introduced, walking to the podium, adjusting the microphone (if needed), smiling, recalling what you want to say, and speaking—having a conversation with your audience. Studies have shown that virtual rehearsal can be as helpful as actual rehearsal—unless, of course, you are in the estimated 3-5% of the population that cannot “visualize in their mind’s eye.” You can place your script on 5 x 8 index cards in sequence, or memorize it, show bullet-point slides, or use a teleprompter. Select what you are most comfortable with and practice until you can deliver the content smoothly and conversationally. Speaking in a hurried monotone is a non-starter.

2. Hone your credibility. Although imitation may be the highest form of flattery, authenticity promotes credibility. Unless your performance requires you to mimic what someone else has done, as in a movie or stage play—and then hopefully you have had acting lessons—be “the real “you.” Copying body language and gestures that are foreign to you tend to look contrived and phony. No two brains on planet earth are identical, and each has a special giftedness. Figure out what yours is. Be clear about what you know and what you yet need to learn. It has been said that a little knowledge is dangerous. The Dunning–Kruger effect suggests that poor performers often show little insight into performance shortcomings, presumably because they suffer from a double whammy. Knowledge deficits prevent them from producing correct responses and from recognizing that the responses they produce are inferior to those of others with far more education and experience. If questions are permitted, pretending you know the answer to every question asked—unless you truly do—is a major faux pas.

Bluffing or pretending has always been dicey. In this age of global social media, it is downright dangerous. It can take a long time to build a solid reputation for credibility, and only an instant to blow it to smithereens. If you do not know the answer to a specific question, say so. No one person knows everything. Filibustering is a dead-end street. Remember the old saying, empty cans make the most noise. If you have not a clue about how to answer the question, just say, “My brain is not giving me an answer to that question.” If you know information that relates to the question, you might say, “From what I know, my opinion is that such and such may be the case.”

3. Manage performance choking. Jeff Wise described performance choking as a “social type of fear, a variety of performance anxiety related to stage fright or a form of panic attack.” It has also been referred to as Paradoxical Performance. In situations of fear or stress, the brain directs its energy and attention toward the reptilian brain, where stress reactions (e.g., fight-flight) are located—a process known as downshifting. Being self-focused (rather than task-focused), creates anxiety and performance fear that can trigger downshifting. The resulting automatic stress reaction may include trembling, cold or sweaty hands, tight throat, nausea (or worse), rapid breathing, dry mouth, changes in vision, the mind going blank temporarily, collapsing backstage or even running off stage. The antidote to performance choking is staying task focused. Pay attention to what you are doing and saying. Avoid thinking and focusing on yourself, e.g., how the performance sounds, your own self-worth issues, what the audience thinks of you, or expectations. Remain centered on the presentation tasks. Choking need not be an inevitable flaw of performance. Use STP to remind you of how to avoid it:

  • Stay in the moment. Think about what you need to do now—not about what just happened, not what could possibly happen, or whether the audience will have enjoyed the experience.
  • Take control of your mindset. When you become aware of a negative thought, move past it immediately to a positive one. Avoid thinking or talking about what you do not want to have happen. Imagine, think, and talk ONLY about what you do want to have happen—as if it is a done deal in the moment.
  • Perform with pleasure. Enjoy what you are doing. Trust your brain and body and the skills you have developed. Remember how much you like sharing with others through public speaking performances.

4. Build Self-esteem and Confidence. They are linked because confidence is built on your level of self-esteem. Think of self-esteem as how much you value yourself and what you tell yourself about your worth. Confidence is a clear belief that you have the ability to acquire the skills needed to meet any challenge or dilemma in life—which sometimes means asking for help. Everyone needs a support system, a group of individuals that can help you learn those skills. Every brain has tasks that it does energy efficiently, easily, and well. Every brain also has tasks that utilize enormous amounts of energy and require a struggle to complete. Part of self-knowledge is knowing which is which for your brain. In life, everyone has to complete some tasks that are energy exhausting. Minimize those when you can. Understanding this can help you to avoid beating yourself up for doing some tasks less well than those that match your brain’s innate giftedness. Thank your brain for helping you perform these energy-exhausting tasks as successfully as possible and avoid allowing them to tank your self-esteem and lower your confidence. It is normal—commonly occurring—to experience butterflies flitting around in your stomach prior to a performance. After all, every performance is unique. Paul Larkin put it this way. “It is a one-off. There is an interaction between that one audience and that one speaker in that one place. It will never happen again. It is special. It is a performance.” A balanced sense of self-worth and a healthy level of confidence can help you manage the butterflies. Picture them with anticipation and excitement rather than anxiety or worry.

5. Raise Your Level of Emotional Intelligence (EQ). The higher your level of EQ the more likely you are to avoid JOT behaviors: Jumping to conclusions, Overreacting, or Taking things personally. EQ skills along with self-awareness not only help keep you centered in the reason you are making the presentation; they also can thicken your skin enough to help you brush off some of the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” as Shakespeare put it in scene three of his play, Hamlet. The more you are in the public eye, the more likely you are to receive unsolicited comments—subjective opinions of other brains—about your performance that can range from thankfulness to outright putdowns. Anais Nin has said that “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” EQ skills can assist you in evaluating input in a balanced way, considering the way you are receiving it, learning what you can from the suggestions, and letting the rest go.

High EQ can also help you avoid the trap of plagiarism like the proverbial plague. It can undermine your credibility and image. In a sense, there is nothing new under the sun. Somewhere, sometime, somehow, another individual has likely written, spoken, or opined about your topic. If you have gained additional insights from listening to or reading what others have written, or increased your understanding from published research, give credit where credit is due. It does not minimize the way in which you are presenting the information. Fortunately, information itself—including book titles and even specific words—cannot be copyrighted. The way in which the information is presented can be. Therefore, present the information as accurately as possible in your own way, always being generous with crediting. There is plenty of recognition to go around.

6. Hone Your Image. How you look and act matters! While you may have the right to show up in your birthday suit, it may also get you cited for indecent exposure. Findings from a study led by Michael L. Slepian of Columbia University reported that the type of clothing one wears impacts an individual’s cognitive (thinking) processing style. Wearing formal clothing over casual styles tends to increase abstract thinking in the mind of the wearer. An ability to summarizes or concentrate the essentials of a larger topic can be invaluable, and abstract thinking contributes to that skill. Studies report that you have 1/10th of a second in which to make your initial impression—likely reinforced in the next 6/10th to 9/10th of a second, and that six months later, their first impression was the one that people remembered, even after they had gotten to know the individual. Think ahead. Look the part for your presentation. If you are likely to be making multiple presentations, you may want to obtain consultation on types of clothing that look best with your body type, hair styles that better match your face shape, and colors that compliment your skin tones. Picture in your mind’s eye your plan, smile, and focus on your task; 1/10th of a second is all you need to make a positive and confident impression.

7. Enjoy what you are doing. It is a compliment to be asked to make a presentation. Have fun. If you are comfortable and having an enjoyable time, most likely so will your audience. If you make a mistake—and you will—it is simply evidence that you are human. Course-correct and go on. If you can laugh at yourself, typically your audience will relax and laugh with you. If you are planning to say ‘should’ and a four-letter word slips out instead, pause, look horrified, and say, “Did I really—oh, never mind. I must be more nervous than I thought. I certainly hope my mother does not hear about this. I might be uninvited for both Thanksgiving and Christmas!” (or something that sounds like you). I actually fell off the pointed end of a wedge-shaped stage once during a seminar performance. Landed right on a mother-board two feet below, I did, to the raucous accompaniment of a cacophony of sounds. Two men from the audience rushed over and helped me back up onto the make-shift stage. Having learned to look for the humor in everything, and unhurt, I started laughing so hard I could barely get out the words: “Well, that was a first and certainly not intended to be part of this presentation!” The audience laughed with me, even harder when a teenager near the front called out, “Will there be an encore?”

Know and accept that not everyone will like your performance. Their impression may be linked with their past experiences. If you did no performances, you still might be criticized for that! Make your goal to say something that will help another brain on its journey through life, which makes your efforts worth the work and is rewarding for your brain. Competence involves an ongoing learning process of perfecting performance. Affirm what you did well. Acknowledge what needs improvement. Continue polishing. You can present a performance that leaves a positive and informative impression in the brains and hearts of your audience.