The other day I was having coffee with a friend who has been both a successful leadership communication coach and an actor and we were both reflecting on what it was like to be on stage. I shared with her an experience that I used to have as an actor in which I felt like I was working really hard on stage. In hindsight I realized how much of that feeling came from two fundamental beliefs.
1. If I’m not showing you that I’m working hard, then you will think I am lazy.
2. That I could make up for whatever work I didn’t do in rehearsal by working extra hard in my performance.
In retrospect, these two parts just made my performances heavy and clunky.
She responded by pointing to Fred Astaire and how you could never see him sweat. He could make the most complicated of routines seem like a walk in the park. (Although he makes it look more elegant than most of us walk, I will admit.)
He was able to do this by doing two things:
1. Working really hard in rehearsals.
2. Letting go of the “hard work” when performing.
If you are naturally comfortable as a speaker, you might tend to forgo the extra work to prepare for a talk. Your inclination may be that you will be able to make up the difference once you are in front of the audience. This is a dangerous place to put yourself as it sets you up to have to work harder and “find” your way through your talk. At no point in the video above do we get the impression that Astaire is working to figure out what he has to do next. The result is a joyfulness that pervades all of his dances and helped make him a sensation.
If you are the kind of person who believes in the ideal of “hard work,” you might be inclined to make your talk muscular and intense (actors call it “showing the mechanics” of your acting). There is nothing exactly wrong with this (Steve Jobs did pretty well at it in his presentations), but they can create the impression that you are sweating the talk or that you need the audience to validate all the hard work that you are doing.
It is better still if you can let go and trust that the talk will be there for you. Focus instead on the joy of connecting with the audience, with the passion you feel for the idea and the full expression of all the hard work you put into it. Wear it like a comfortable jacket.
In summary, do the hard work before the talk. Put in the time and the effort to master what it is that you want to say and how you want to say it. Then let it go and just be in the performance of it. No need to show that you are sweating the details. Just do it.
The more successful you are at this, the more your audience will both appreciate you and hear your message.