That’s Intriguing #111: What If We Saw Speaking as a Sport?

“A real decision is demonstrated by the fact that you’ve taken a new action. If you haven’t taken action, you haven’t truly made a decision.” – Tony Robbins

I was coaching a client who admitted that, even though she’s a successful executive, she still gets nervous when she speaks. She had an important presentation coming up and was afraid she might freeze up.

I asked her, “Are you an athlete?”

“Yes. I swam in college and I work out or do yoga several times a week.”

“Good. From now on, you’re going to approach speaking as a sport.”

“What do you mean?”

“There are two kinds of athletes. Those who, when the game is on the line, step back and say, ‘DON’T give me the ball’ and those who step up and say, ‘Give me the ball.’

I bet you’re a ‘Gimme the ball’ kind of person.”

She laughed and said, “You’re right.”

“From now on, see speaking as a sport. Prep like you would for a championship match.”

“How do I do that?”

Here’s how.

1. Check out the venue in advance so you have home-field advantage.

When I speak at events, I always go to the meeting room the night before, when no one’s around.

I take the stage, throw my heart to the back of the room and give part of my presentation with the same voice volume and animation I would before an audience of a thousand.

“Why is that so important?”

As Pop Warner said, ‘You play the way you practice.’

You can’t practice with 50% effort and expect to show up and be 100% excellent.

The same is true for speaking. You can’t expect to play your best if you haven’t rehearsed with the same focus and intensity you want for the real-thing.

Practicing where and the way you’re going to present gives you a competitive edge because you’ve “been there, done that.”

Other speakers will feel nervous, distracted or “out of their element” because they’re experiencing a flight-or-fight response in these unfamiliar surroundings.

You, on the other hand, will hit it out of the park because you’re familiar with the setting. You can relax because you’ll feel like you’re playing in front of your home crowd.

2. Go for a walk/rehearse the morning of the event to get out of your head and into your body.

I asked my client, “Have you been told to practice your speech in front of a mirror?”


“That’s terrible advice!” I told her.

“Practicing in front of a mirror focuses you on YOU which makes you overly self-aware. Self-consciousness (‘I’m so nervous’) is the opposite of the confident stream-of-consciousness state you want to be in when you speak.

You want to focus on your audience, not on how you look or what people think of you. You want to become so wrapped up in what you want to say and why, you forget to be afraid.”

“Sounds good. How do I do that?”

“With something I call RWWA.”

“What’s that?” she asked.

“You’ve heard of MBWA? Manage By Walking Around? That’s when you get out of your office and walk around the building to connect with employees to find out what matters to them.

RWWA is Rehearse While Walking Around.

This is when you get out of the house/ hotel and walk around before a presentation to mentally connect with your audience and practice giving a message that will matter to them.

I always go outside for a vigorous walk/talk the morning of a presentation. (And if it’s snowing or raining, I do this in the hotel halls.)

Not only does this kick-start my endorphins, align my right and left brain and get my energy flowing; it helps me get in my athletic wheelhouse so I’m raring to go.

Plus, looking around at my surroundings while rehearsing my key points is a way to practice multi-focus speaking and set up ConZONEtration.

ConZONEtration is the sublime peak performance state where you’re focused on what you’re doing – while, at the same time, adapting to your surroundings.

Champion athletes and experienced speakers are pros at ConZONEtration.

For example, a world-class athlete can respond to the elements (I.e., a change in the wind, a heckler, his opponent just made a birdie) without allowing it to break their focus.

The best speakers are like athletes. They prepared but they also adapt to the moment. They have mastered the ability to focus on what they’re saying now … and shift what they’re going to say next … based on the reactions of the audience and what’s happening in the room.

That’s why the best speakers don’t work from a memorized word-by-word script. Reading from a teleprompter, your notes or power point slides keeps you in your head. If something unforeseen happens, you’re likely to freeze because you’ve got a locked-in game plan. What’s worse, the audience might as well not even be in the room because you’re concentrating solely on what you planned to say instead of what will connect with, or truly matter to, them.

That’s the advantage of rehearsing while moving. Just like an athlete, you are practicing staying focused while responding to your surroundings. You are getting good at being flexible yet focused IN THE MOMENT instead of being IN YOUR HEAD.”

My client said, ‘Sam, I agree with RWWA in theory, but it doesn’t always work in real-life. What if I’m running late and arrive minutes before I’m scheduled to present?”

I asked, “How much money are you asking for in this pitch?”

“$1.5 million.”

“So, you’re asking for a million+ dollars and you wouldn’t invest a few hours to prep yourself ahead of time to increase the likelihood of closing this deal?

You’ve spent a year putting this venture together, developing your product and website, and assembling your team; and you wouldn’t do the one thing that could make the difference between you walking in feeling pressured and panicked . . . or walking in feeling poised and powerful?

Your future may rest on whether you get a yes from someone in this room. Isn’t it worth arriving early to walk/rehearse – just like an athlete would for their Olympic event – so you’re in the zone and prepared to do your best and be your best?”

She protested one last time. “What if I’m still nervous?”

“Then, you’re still in your head worrying how you’ll come across. As actress Faye Dunaway said, ‘Fear is a pair of handcuffs on your soul.’ Focusing on doubts feeds fear which keeps you in neck-up nervousness and hand-cuffs your confidence. ”

3. Ground yourself by assuming an athletic stance so you’re ready for anything.

Another way to be in the moment instead of in your head is to put yourself in the “ready position” that tennis players adopt when receiving a serve. (Rafael Nadal’s stance in the above picture is a bit exaggerated, but you get the idea…:-)

I’ll always remember a woman keynoter who walked out, stood with her feet together, leaned against the lectern, ducked her head, and held her hands in the “fig leaf” position. Her posture made her look like a pushover, like she “couldn’t stand up for herself.” Her first words were said with a whispery, upward lilt, “I was telling my grand-daughters yesterday how much I was looking forward to this …”

Whether it was fair or not, the laptops, iPads and mobile phones came out and within minutes people were walking out. The conclusion of the high-powered audience was: meek posture = weak presentation. Her tentativeness and lack of executive presence had failed to command their respect.

If you want to exude an executive presence, adopt an athletic posture.

Walk to the center of the stage, vs. hiding behind a lectern. Face the audience, head on. Plant your feet shoulder-width-apart, knees slightly bent, so you’re grounded yet ready to react. This makes you feel physically and mentally “quick on your feet.” You’ll feel more confident of your ability to respond to whatever happens.

Stand tall. Hold your head high and look the audience straight in the eye. Tower vs. cower.

NO fig-leaf position. Clasping your hands together tightens you up and makes people feel you’re trying to hide something. Instead, hold your hands out like you’re holding a basketball. This opens you to the audience and leaves your hands free to gesture naturally. You’ll find yourself organically acting out what you’re saying, without even thinking about it.

Think to yourself, “I am SO looking forward to this. ‘Gimme the ball.’ Beam out a smile, from the heart, to the group and then focus on what matters, which is delivering a message that is a win for everyone in the room … including you.

Remember that quote from Tony Robbins. If you haven’t taken action, you haven’t truly made a decision. Decide now you’re going to approach presentations differently.

  1. Promise yourself you’ll never again practice in front of a mirror, read from a word-by-word script, or study your power point slides over and over. Those are artificial, passive practice environments that disconnect you from your audience and keep you in your head.
  2. Get walking and talking, moving and rehearsing, so you’re in your athletic wheelhouse.
  3. Set up ConZONEtration by practicing the same way you want to play.
  4. Rehearse walking in with confidence and connecting with everyone in the room.
  5. Get out of your head and into your body by adopting an athletic stance, so you’re grounded, but ready for anything.

When you do this, when you start seeing speaking as a sport and preparing for presentations as an athlete, everyone wins.

– – – – – –

How do YOU prepare for important presentations?

How do you get in your athletic wheelhouse, set up ConZONEtration, and focus on connecting with your audience?

How do you rehearse walking in with confidence and speaking so it’s a win for everyone in the room?

I know you’re busy, however it’d be great to hear your insights and examples.

With your permission, I may even include them in my new book, ARE YOU INTRIGUING? How Not to be a Bore, Snore or Chore, coming out in early 2015 from Berrett-Koehler.

You’re welcome to share them here or by emailing them directly to me at I look forward to hearing from you.

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