Surveys have revealed that speaking before an audience is one of the most common fears among people from all walks of life. An oft-heard comment is, “I’m just not a good speaker.” These words imply that a person believes that the ability to speak in front of an audience is determined at birth. And, as with just about any skill, to a great extent it’s true. Natural ability is always helpful, but it’s not what carries the day.
A professional speechwriter once told me that the real problem is that many speakers simply don’t practice enough, while others practice merely going through the motions. And some speakers don’t practice at all. In other words, they just try to “wing it.” Their attitude is, “Good enough is good enough.”
He extended this point by telling me something that most people might find hard to believe — that the best natural speakers are often the worst-performing speakers. How can this be? Because speakers with great natural talent tend to feel relaxed and in control in front of an audience. Which in turn causes many of them to believe they don’t need to practice.
I can relate to this, because I fell into the overconfidence trap early in my career. From a very young age, I recognized that I had a gift of gab, and I mistakenly believed that this ability was all it took to be a great public speaker.
The embarrassing end to my ludicrous belief came during a performance in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. At the time, my second book, Looking Out for #1, had just ascended to #1 on The
and I was drunk on the wine of adulation. I was scheduled to give a speech before an audience of three thousand people, all of whom I assumed were Robert Ringer disciples.
After an introduction that stripped me of my last vestiges of humility, I strode onto the stage and began gabbing. I was all over the lot … every sentence flooded with “uhs” … repeating myself endlessly … and ad-libbing “jokes” that brought only ominous blank stares from the audience.
Being the perceptive young man I was, after about ten minutes I sensed I was in big trouble. When raw eggs and tomatoes are flying at you from every direction, you begin to suspect that the audience is not real impressed with either your message or your delivery. And when virtually everyone in the room begins to nervously cough, it’s all you can do to resist calling out, “Mom! Come get me, quick!”
Since that embarrassing fiasco, I’ve witnessed many high-profile people giving speeches that ranged from mediocre to abysmal. In every instance, it’s been obvious to me that the speaker was arrogantly and/or ignorantly winging it.
Having said this, here’s the painful truth about one of the best-kept secrets of great public speakers: They orchestrate their speeches down to the last detail. What I’m talking about here is tireless, ongoing practice — not only every word, but precise body language, facial expressions, voice inflection, and more.
The legendary Zig Ziglar was a textbook example of this. Clearly, he was a master craftsman who orchestrated his presentations to perfection. When Zig stepped onto the stage, it was like watching a great actor perform Othello.
Years ago, I went to two Zig Ziglar speeches in the space of about six months, and not only was every word and every sentence exactly the same — and delivered in precisely the same manner — Zig even got down on one knee at precisely the same moment. It was like being in a time machine and watching Al Jolson perform “Mammy.”
By contrast, I recall a famous NFL quarterback telling me that years ago, when he was in the national spotlight, he did quite a bit of public speaking in the off season. I asked him how much time he spent practicing, and he replied, “Shucks, I don’t practice. I don’t believe in giving canned speeches. I come across better when I’m spontaneous. I just get up and talk about whatever’s on my mind.”
Really? There’s a term to used to describe this kind of attitude: arrogance of the ignorant. As you might have guessed, after his career ended, this one-time, high-profile athlete disappeared from the speaking circuit entirely. So much for just getting up and talking about whatever’s on your mind.
But orchestration isn’t confined to public speaking. On the contrary, it’s one of the keys to success in all professions. For example, I recall many years ago watching Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme perform at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
At the time, they were at the top of the entertainment ladder, and they put on a terrific show. What I enjoyed most about their act were their humorous ad-libs and spontaneous ribbing of one another. They were muffing lines, clowning around, and cracking up on stage.
In fact, I enjoyed their act so much that I went back the next night to see it again. Surprise! Every line I had thought to be spontaneous was repeated verbatim the second time around — right down to their facial expressions, the way they laughed, their body language, and their timing.
They muffed the exact same lines and cracked up in precisely the same manner and at precisely the same moments as the night before. There was no spontaneity whatsoever. The entire act was orchestrated from start to finish. It was perfected to the nth degree.
I subsequently told a good friend of mine, who was a big-time television producer, what I had witnessed in Las Vegas. His response: “Welcome to the world.” He assured me that everything in show business is orchestrated, especially the lines you think are ad-libbed. (Today, this is painfully evident in all so-called reality-TV shows. Ugh!)
He went on to explain, “You know those spontaneous moments on variety shows when the performers are cracking up in front of the audience? It’s all orchestrated — every laugh, every grimace, every pratfall.” He emphasized that professionals don’t go in front of the cameras until they have every word and every gesture down cold.
Which brings me to my final example of orchestration. I recently wrote about Steve Croft’s interview with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady on 60 Minutes. At one point, Brady was talking about how many hours he spends each day studying game films, which prompted Croft to rhetorically ask him, “So, everything is orchestrated?”
To which Brady replied, “Everything is orchestrated. You don’t just go out and wing it.” Thus, sports, speaking, show business — just about any profession you can think of — have at least one thing in common: Orchestration is a key to greatness.
So, the question is, given that it produces such good results, why don’t more people invest a lot of time and effort on orchestration? Other than laziness, I believe one of the biggest reasons for this is that they believe orchestration is somehow dishonest.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The person who orchestrates everything in advance does so because he cares enough about his work to strive for perfection. Orchestration is nothing more than practicing precisely what you’re going to do and say — and that’s always a good thing.
To parody the words of the now-deceased legal wizard who managed to set double-murderer O. J. Simpson free (at least for a while) through shameless diversionary tactics and a dose of grade-school poetry: If you yearn to be great, you must orchestrate.
Eat your heart out, Muhammad Ali.