Sunday, June 14, 2015

Why I Don't Rehearse

The terror.

When I was younger, I was terrified of public speaking. I think like many adolescents, I was petrified to stand in front of a group of my peers and speak. I would shake, stutter, and was obviously uncomfortable whenever I had to perform in front of a group. I would rehearse, line-by-line, exactly what I wanted to do/say, and I would always draw a blank when the moment to speak arrived.

Image: Pixabay
The big turning point in my anxiety came during high school, when I performed in a jazz band. We had to improvise, on stage, and there was an entirely different preparation process. Instead of practicing, note by note, I had to take a different approach.

Of course, practice was fundamental, but it was a different kind of practice. The main music (known as the "head") had to be fluent - you couldn't think about it, it had to be a natural extension of what you do. The movements, chord progressions, and cues all needed to be second nature. Then, there was the matter of practicing scales. You had to know all the scales for each chord in the progression, and again, they had to be second nature.

Improvisation isn't just "making things up"

In essence, I had to establish a baseline of proficiency in the fundamentals. Once I had that, the improvisation, the pace, the movement from one note to the next, all came without conscious effort. I eventually reached a point where my brain knew what I could (and, more importantly, what I couldn't) do with my instrument. My muscles knew how to make happen what my brain wanted. It became less of a performance, and more of an experience. I began to ignore the crowd, and focus instead on my own process.

I've carried this lesson with me throughout my life. Any time I need to speak in public now (which is far more often than I'd ever imagined I would as a child), I follow this same process.

  1. Establish a plan. Know the material, the tool, the concept, or the core of what I'm going to be presenting. The only real way to do this is to invest the time and energy in learning it by doing.
  2. Build a solid foundation. In music, it was scales. In my career, it's personal philosophy and mission. I know what I believe, what I want to achieve, and what I feel is critical.
  3. Allow the experience to happen. I don't force it. If I feel like moving away from what I had anticipated covering, I do it. I don't allow a script to dictate with absolute authority what I will and will not do.
  4. Enjoy it. This one took a long time to learn. I still get nervous. I still shake sometimes. But instead of letting this stop me, I can now embrace it. I even share my nervousness with the people I'm presenting to. Just because I'm intimidated doesn't mean I can't have fun at the same time.
Rehearsal covers the first two elements well. It would let me establish a plan and foundation upon which to build. But it precludes the improvisational nature of public performance that I find exhilarating. I would spend more time thinking about the script than I would about the actual moment in which I was experiencing. I would, in effect, miss out on the experience.

Preparation and Rehearsal are not the same thing.

Don't get me wrong: I certainly spend time preparing. In fact, I prepare quite a lot. However, I don't worry about going "off-script" when a moment of inspiration strikes. I often move away from my prepared slides (and, in fact, I rarely make it to my final slide, since I enjoy finding a new way to reach my goals). I allow the moment, the crowd, the mood, and the room to determine what I do, just as much as I follow the plan. I never forget where I want to go, but how I get there is entirely dependent on the unique experience.
Image: Pixabay

It's not always a smashing success, certainly. But there are times when it ends up so much better than I had planned, that it's worth the risk. By focusing on myself, instead of my topic, I can present with integrity, authenticity, and enthusiasm. I'm sure I could do the same with a scripted presentation, but it wouldn't feel as natural to me.

And, in the end, I'm as much concerned with keeping my own passion afire as I am about igniting it in others.

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