Monday, October 06, 2008

How Sarah Palin Should Prepare... and How You Should, Too

How Sarah Palin Should Prepare... and How You Should, Too

The anticipated audience for the Vice Presidential debate threatens to exceed that of the first Presidential debate, and it's not necessarily because of the issues on the table. No, the crowd for this show is more akin to people who watch NASCAR races in hopes of a crash. 

One thing is clear: it's make or break for Sarah Palin's political career. But leaders of all types--political or no--routinely face challenging and public tests of their leadership and, specifically, their communication skills. If you're facing a similar situation, where a presentation will have a lasting effect on your career, here are some well-tested tactics to employ. Successful implementation of these techniques can help turn the heat of the spotlight into a warm glow.

First, remember that every speech is two conversations - the verbal (the content) and the non-verbal (the body language). If the two are aligned, you can be effective. If the two are not aligned, the audience believes the non-verbal every time.

The most important implication of this fact is that you must rehearse. If you don't, your body language will tell the audience - no matter how good you think you are - that you are doing this for the first time. While that's charming in 3-year-olds' dance performances, it doesn't cut it when you're expected to look like you know what you're doing. We are all unconscious experts in reading body language, and we'll pick up instantly if you're an amateur at this particular game.

Second, rehearse under conditions as close to reality as possible. If you can get into the hall, rehearse there. If not, approximate it. The reason is that surprises at the event itself will throw you, and more than 3 surprises will flummox you. And that will show up in your body language. If the lights are brighter, or the sound is more echo-y, or the stage is bigger than you anticipated, that takes mental energy to deal with - mental energy that you won't be putting into a sparkling performance.

Third, to further ensure that your two conversations are aligned, make certain that you are comfortable with and passionate about your content. If it doesn't ring true to you, you won't be able to make it ring true to for you audience. Once again, your body will betray your ambivalence.

Confidence comes from having a great speech - for you - knowing it cold, and rehearsing it thoroughly. Don't ever think, I'll just wing it. The people who wing it are never as good as they think they are.

It's also important to engage in positive self-talk. If that sounds too 'new age', get over it. You will be engaging in negative self-talk, also known as worrying. It will seep into your unconscious and give your body language a fine patina of fear, uncertainty, and doubt. You must combat that unconscious self-betrayal by telling yourself, constantly, I'm going to be fine; I know the material well; I'm excited to have this chance; and so on.

Olympic-level athletes understand that the need for mental conditioning is just as important as the need for physical conditioning. It's the same for speakers in high-stakes situations. Adrenaline will be coursing through your system. You need to be ready for it.

Just before the speech, there are three things you can do to improve your performance.

  • First, breathe. Deep breathing from your belly or diaphragm. If you don't know how to breathe from your belly, take a yoga or a singing class. A good teacher from either of those worlds can show you how to breathe diaphragmatically,
  • Second, focus on your emotional connection to the material you're about to deliver. A speech is both an emotional and an intellectual journey the speaker takes the audience on, so feel that emotion, strongly and clearly, before you start. You know what that is, right?
  • Third, get the opening line in your head, stand up straight, smile, and go for it. As they say in the acting world, break a leg.
Nick Morgan is one of America's top communications theorists and coaches. His new book on authentic communications, Trust Me: Four Steps to Authenticity and Charisma, is due out in December 2008.

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