Vocal Lessons Article

#5: Preparation – How to Own Any Room


It's hard not to hear about Alana Thompson these days. You're likely more familiar with her pseudonym - Honey Boo Boo Child. I won't say which of our staff members is obsessed with the show, and I pass no judgment, but his initials are David Brandon McCall. Each Wednesday David tunes into The Learning Channel so that he may discover what sassified larks Ms. Boo may possibly conjure this time round.

The surname Kardashian is among the most recognizable in the country, but it has arguably become so at the price of being synonymous with "talent-free." Many haters (who would be well advised to watch the show before they go about casting aspersions; Kim's aptitude for braiding is unrivaled) rant about how her family doesn't do anything and that they are simply famous for being famous.

Here we have two disparate examples of stars of reality television - a phenomenon that has been pervasive in our culture for more than a decade. Though many reality shows have some form of competition, the "documentary style" approach that's currently en vogue does not. From The Real World to Real Housewives, from Duck Dynasty to Double Divas, we often tune in to television just to see people do... what they do. They can be rich and famous like Kim and Ko., or they can be coupon cutters like the Thompsons. If no specific degrees of talent, wealth, looks, or intelligence are prerequisites, what do the majority of these reality stars have in common? Why did we ever care about Snooki?

It is because on some level, these reality stars project confidence.

Sure - they cry in camera confessionals and reveal their insecurities and vulnerable sides...

...but the fact that they are willing to do it in front of millions of viewers is a quality we admire, even in those we claim to "hate." We see people behave in ways that we wouldn't. These individuals seemingly have no regard for what others think of them, and that quality in-and-of-itself is an attractive and intriguing one, regardless of how repugnant one's personality or acts may be. These people appear comfortable being who they are and putting it on display for the world.

Confidence is the most common word I hear when discussing goals with a new client. Whether someone is preparing for a job interview, a presentation, a client meeting, or a date, they say that they want to know how to seem - and be! - more confident. Though I am not promoting becoming the next Honey Kardashian, I would propose that we glean what we can from their - on some level - fearless spirits.

How do we become more confident? To steal a sentence from my PowerPoint-ready financial district clients: "I want to answer that question for the board members today with three P's."

Preparation, Perspective, and Physical Awareness.

In a series of articles on confidence, I hope to take you through some thoughts and exercises for each of these principles so that you can, as executives are often encouraged to do, "own the room." The first of these concepts is preparation.

Part I, Preparation

Sufficient preparation is the cardinal ingredient for confidence. My father was a judge for many years, and when people would ask about the best lawyers and who was likely to win a given case, he consistently answered with "Whichever lawyer is more prepared."

To be fair, many of you already prepare. Though my clients are frequently concerned, because they have spent weeks doing what they believe is thorough preparation, they still feel like Jell-O when they get in front of a crowd. This is often a result of preparing in an ineffective way.

Others may be thinking, "I do fine when I speak with a verbatim or extemporaneous presentation that I can practice. It's impromptu speaking - like Q & A and conversation - that gets me nervous! There's no way to prepare for that!"

Firstly, you're wrong on that point. There are plenty of exercises that can make you better prepared to handle impromptu speaking. That, however, is a topic for another article. In this installment, I want to take you through seven tips, on how to prepare effectively for presentations and speeches, for which you have the opportunity to prepare content ahead of time.

TIP #1 - PREPARE AS FAR IN ADVANCE AS YOU ARE ABLE. This is the single best piece of advice I give to clients who are serious about their preparation. 30 hours of prep in the two days before your speech is not as helpful as 12 cumulative hours that you started a month ago. The brain and body feel most comfortable with content they've had time to literally sleep on. The process of sleep solidifies your memory, and the longer you've known something, the better your brain will be able to access the material on the day. Last minute cramming may get you by in terms of content, but it's detrimental to your confidence level.

TIP #2 - PREPARE IN FRONT OF SOMEONE ELSE. Countless speakers make the mistake of thinking that preparing means muttering the words as you lie in bed at night or doing a few quick tries by yourself in front of a mirror. You must change your thinking. There is not an important speech I give that I don't first practice in front of a friend, stranger, or colleague. How many times when you practice alone do you stop and re-start? Having someone watch provides inherent accountability. Additionally, your practice audience may be able to offer feedback for your consideration.

TIP #3 - PREPARE ON FILM. Your phone, your laptop, or an actual camera will do nicely. If you want to give your speech well, you need to watch yourself, and a camera is an infinitely better option than doing it in a mirror. Film your presentation, go back, watch, make notes, try again. You'll see things about your posture, gesticulations, and speech patterns that you would have never otherwise noticed. (You'll be surprised at how often you're saying "Um!") If your presentation is 3 hours long, film only few-minute portions of your speech and base your critiques on those samples. As you see yourself improving on film, your confidence will increase as well.

TIP #4 - PREPARE WITH DISTRACTIONS. Not exclusively, of course, but when you're ready for it, this tip is essential. It's also my personal favorite. Any of my clients know that I put them through hell before they give a speech. That way, the actual day feels like walking after you get off a trampoline. You may think you know your content like the back of your hand, but try giving the speech while someone is talking to you. Directly to you. Louder than you. Give your speech while they are trying to cause you to "break." The best way to prepare for a presentation is to do it while having someone try to make you laugh, make you flustered, or if it's your significant other, seduce you. If you're alone, you can give your speech with the TV volume on high while completing another task simultaneously. If you can deliver it under those conditions, trust me, everything else seems like a piece of cake.

TIP #5 - PREPARE AT DIFFERENT SPEEDS. I encourage people to try their speeches at speeds considerably slower and faster than they would actually use. Practicing slowly helps you to achieve perfection and maintain focus. Practicing as fast as you possibly can forces your mind-to-mouth synapses to fire more quickly than they ever normally would. Try delivering your speech at the speed of light. Hard, eh? But your preparation at warp speed will improve your performance once you take it back down to a normal tempo.

TIP #6 - PREPARE YOUR OPENING. Replicate the actual environment to the best of your ability and practice your greeting and your first several lines more than anything else. Getting off on the right foot feels fantastic, and knowing your first few lines as well as you know the alphabet will provide a surge of confidence right from the top.

TIP #7 - PREPARE WITH A COACH. A trained speech coach will make you aware of areas you may have neglected, offer additional constructive suggestions, and you can experience an intense version of distraction-based training. A session or two with a coach before an interview, speech, or presentation is strongly encouraged for those who want to feel completely confident.

Proper and adequate preparation is step one on the road to appearing and being the confident and brilliant speaker that you are. So what are you waiting for? If you've got a speech coming up in a few weeks, get started now! Spend just five minutes filming yourself today, find a friend or coach to listen to you, and practice frequently! Consistent, high-quality preparation is the first step towards a more confident you.

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John West

John West

Head of New York Speech Coaching