Maria Sharapova. Fred Astaire. Tiger Woods. Laurence Olivier. These people represent the pinnacle of their professions and they all embody the value of continuous, focused, practice.
Neurological research is now uncovering that physiological changes occur in the brain and the nervous system as a result of repeated practice of physical exercises. The coaches of old who talked about ‘grooving’ the air with endless repetitions of the same action knew what they were talking about.

It turns out that repeating physical actions over and over stimulates myelin growth around neurons and that augmented sheathing improves neuronal conductivity over time. So Olivier practising his famous ‘shout’ is the same as Woods working for days at a time on his pitching shots is the same as Sharapova practising thousands of cross-court backhands in an afternoon is the same as …

I posted on the subject of language and the power of plain speaking recently. The problem with presenting [or a job interview or a delicate negotiation] is that your everyday plain mode of speaking may not sufficiently serve you in that environment. Frequently, you have to use an alien language during the presentation process, one that you have no occasion to call upon outside of that setting. On a day-to-day basis, you utilise three vocabularies:

  • The vocabulary of Profession (the specialised language of your job or course of study). I can talk till the cows come home on the topics of public speaking and career management; I run dry pretty quickly on the topic of laser physics.
  • The vocabulary of Acquaintance (small-talk, light conversation, social lubrication).
  • The vocabulary of Intimacy (that special lexicon that you reserve for your family and closest friends). This is usually a sort of short-hand, peppered with in-jokes and odd expressions – in my house, 7-UP is called “doodlebop” and McDonalds is the “lellow M.”

The words that comprise these vocabularies are your ‘Active Vocabularies.’ These words are frequently used, easily remembered, and flow effortlessly from your mouth – they are locked into your Vocal Memory.

Your ‘Passive Vocabulary’ consists of all those other words that you have ever read and seen and heard; words that you recognise and understand, but don’t use yourself on an ongoing basis – and unfortunately, they reside in a different part of the brain.

These words will not come easily out of your mouth. They have to travel from the long-term storage facility in your passive vocabulary centre over to the speech centre of your brain. Your muscles of speech production may not have said them for a long time – or ever. And while all those neurons are firing in this unfamiliar pattern there is … silence. And most presenters hate silence. Hence, nervous laughter, physical tics, hemming and hawing, stuttering out the first few words, “eeeeeeh,” “uuummmmm.

If you have a presentation coming up, you need to dredge some unfamiliar words up from this Passive Vocabulary centre and get comfortable using them. Really comfortable. They will become your fourth vocabulary as you prepare for the talk.

How do you rehearse? How much do you rehearse? That will usually depend on how important that next presentation (or job interview or sales pitch or meeting) is to you.

The top speakers I work with will routinely set aside 20-30 hours for rehearsal of a major presentation. The presentation may only take an hour, but they will have spent 20-30 times that long formally rehearsing every syllable that comes out of their mouth and probably twice that long in informal thinking and spitballing before rehearsals even commence.

Mastery is always impressive. I will stop and watch cowpat tossing, if it’s been done by the best cowpat tossers in the world. How masterful are you when you are on your feet? To what extent can you rely on saying exactly what you want to express using the appropriate words for the audience you are speaking to? I hear that the top tennis players will hit 10,000 stokes in a day’s training. I probably haven’t hit that many in my life so for me, a well-placed winning shot is a pleasant surprise. But then again, I don’t depend on tennis for my living …