Speaking from the heart: a recipe for disaster
“I do best when I get up on stage and just speak from the heart,” said former athlete turned public speaker, Sammy Superstar, just this week after I was referenced to him specifically because of how bad he is at public speaking. Oh, the irony. It’s a good thing he didn’t adopt this approach to his sports career.
Rather than try to convince him, I simply wished him the best and made a note to inform my speaking industry peers about another famous person to never recommend for a speaking engagement.
Sammy Superstar is not alone. The myth that ‘preparation hinders authentic presentations’ is alive and well in our culture. It’s befuddling to me. Is there any other activity that people could claim that practice hinders performance? No? Then why would anyone think it’s true for speaking?
Here’s the actual truth: this idea is just an excuse for laziness. It reduces your impact, and it tells the audience that they weren’t worth your best.
Three attributes of a presentation you must prepare
Here are the three unique attributes of a presentation that ensure you are always better off prepared:
- The Numbers – A speech is a unique situation. How many times in life do you have the undivided attention of a large number of people? A speech is an opportunity to persuade, to be a catalyst for change, to move people. In fact, there is no other reason for a speech. When people gather to hear what you have to say, why would you not want to make sure you gave them the information that would most profoundly help them?
And how can anyone possibly claim that additional time spent thinking about a speech wouldn’t improve the quality? You’ve got a captive audience. Imagine how much time it would take to deliver your message to each of them individually. Use that time to prepare for the one time you have them all together.
- A One-Way Street – In a conversation, we are constantly giving and receiving information while we talk and while we listen. We adjust our dialogue based on this feedback. If we are bored, we can change the subject. If we are confused, we can ask questions. Feedback goes out the window in a speech. Sure, great speakers can read audiences, but this is far easier said than done and typically involves a limited sampling rather than overall sentiment.
The solution to the feedback problem is to structure your speech in a manner that keeps the audience engaged and allows for easy retention. Speech structure does not come ‘from the heart.’ What comes from the heart is passion. Don’t get me wrong. We want passion, but passion without structure leads to rambling and audience boredom. I hereby give you permission to be passionate about your message while preparing. Passion is not limited to the moments you stand in front of a crowd.
- The Amygdala Hijack – While it’s actually a myth that public speaking is the number one fear, public speaking does cause significant anxiety (for everyone… even those of you who claim it doesn’t). When we speak, audiences are deciphering messages through two channels- the words we use and the body language we display. Great speakers communicate the same message across both channels.
When we don’t practice and prepare, most of us use our non-verbal communication channel to tell the audience all about the anxiety we are feeling. The body reacts biologically to this ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ situation by what legendary emotional intelligence researcher Daniel Goleman calls the ‘Amygdala Hijack.’ The bio-chemical chain reaction changes us in a number of ways. Of particular importance to the speaker, it reduces blood flow in the brain. This limits our critical thinking and communication skills. All this to say, ill preparation merged with anxiety does not enhance your likelihood to give a good speech.
How to keep the passion in your speeches
Wanting to authentically communicate from the heart is a good goal. It just doesn’t come through the method that most people believe it does.
A great actor will practice over and over again to create an honest portrayal of the character they play. If you are preparing to speak in front of an audience, the best method to ensure they receive your most authentic self is to prepare in such a way that you remove the consequences of an ‘amygdala hijack.’
As my longtime mentor Bryan Flanagan often reminds me, “Preparation makes up for a lack of talent.” I’m sure you are talented, but you are not talented enough to successfully wing a presentation.