The Problem With Perfectionism In Public Speaking

Public Speaking is messy business.

If you are a perfectionist, then any form of public presentation is not going to be pleasant for you.

On the other hand if you are not a perfectionist your public presentation might not be pleasant for your audience!

My father, as a professional violinist, used to say either you or your audience is probably going to suffer, it should never be both.

As a perfectionist, the urge is to prepare everything to make it 'perfect'.

However, almost all presentations require a degree of interaction and flexibility.

If the presentation is too well rehearsed, it may come across as wooden and inflexible.

It is said that every presenter has 3 presentations:

  • The one they intend to give
  • The one they actually give
  • The one the wished they had given.

The only way to satisfy that perfectionist gene (assuming you have it) is to allow your perfectionism to be taken up in creating a very clear and simple roadmap of your presentation: one where you know the destination and the key points along the way.

If you feel the need for greater control, then you can invest your time in thinking of different ways of getting from one key element to the next, so that rather than having a rigid, memorised route, you have a variety of prepared alternatives that lead you to the final destination.

Most classical solo concertos have a space for a 'cadenza' - a free section where the soloist can show off their skills.

Originally there was a principle of improvisation in this section, but increasingly as the level of expectation of technical perfection rose, these cadenzas would be learnt note for note.

A solution some soloists now take is to learn lots of interchangeable sections that they can vary and assemble in performance in different orders, so that on one level everything has been rehearsed and 'perfected', but on another level there is still that sense of freedom and improvisation in taking slightly different routes on different evenings.

On a long car journey you cannot wait for a guarantee that all the lights at all the junctions are green before you leave home.

Many presenters seem to prepare their material as if this had to be the case.

You can only leave home knowing that somehow you will get across each junction in turn.

Sometimes you may need to wait, sometimes you will be able to go straight across, (and sometimes of course you may need to take a diversion).

Preparation is still the key to a successful presentation.  However, instead of striving towards an unrealistic, rigid ideal of the 'perfect' presentation, you should satisfy your perfectionist gene by increasing your flexibility and developing further strategies to reach your goal.

In the end:

Will you have been word perfect? - Probably not.

Will you have reached your objective and covered your key points? - Hopefully Yes.

And that is all that really matters to us in the audience.