On the border of blackout

Have you ever seen a professional speaker deliver a talk that was super polished to “perfection”? So polished in fact, that it somehow feels disconnected?

This comment and observation has happened to Steve Pavlina. He saw talks and speakers that were so well-rehearsed that he felt there was a certain lifelessness to it. He preferred the almost unprepared version, with more um’s and ah’s in between but with a deeper connection to the subject, to the audience and to the present moment.

My take on this is that those he had observed were not true masters of public speaking.

I don’t care how “professional” they are — as in how often they speak, how much money they get paid for it, or how comfortable they claim they are (or aren’t) while doing it. They are stuck in the “press play” level, and have not progressed to master their craft.

How do I know? Well it’s my personal experience for starters, and something I’ve observed in others too.

The Golden Circle of the stage

I have dedicated a large part of my life to stage craft. I have a deep interest in what happens in the space between performer and audience. The awareness, the stage presence, the communication.

I was once taught by a “stage storyteller” (I don’t know the English term for someone who does storytelling as a stage craft/profession) about the Golden Circle.

My job when I tell a story is to create images in the minds of the audience. This means I take in the reactions of the audience and tweak the delivery and wording of the next part accordingly. And then I take in their new reactions and continue adjusting, so that there is a Golden Circle of feedback and a connection and communication between us.

What less secure and/or less advanced people tend to do, is to rehearse something the way they want to deliver it. They rehearse to the point that they record it in muscle memory. It can be inflections, gestures, emphasis. They make an internal recording of their performance and then they press play when it’s time to perform.

Like a live, 3D version of a YouTube movie. The audience becomes reduced to receivers of a broadcast, almost like the only reason for doing it live is the adrenalin rush the sender gets from standing there.

I have seen this many times. One TED talk in particular comes to mind – and no I’m not linking to it because I’m not into shaming – where I knew that the speaker had a background as a performance artist. And the talk felt just like that. A performance.

Not a communication of ideas. A show. The speaker had choreographed and rehearsed every gesture, every pause. We were there to watch but it all felt like a one-way street.

The subtle art of non-verbal communication

In a dance performance, it’s less obvious when this golden circle is missing. Any pre-prepared stage show have certain limits to how much you alter the performance in response to audience feedback, where stage presence and audience awareness and communication become more and more of a subtle and hidden art. But with anything involving speech, you see it and hear it immediately.

Michael Port, who trains people in public speaking, says beginners rehearse until they get it right and professionals rehearse until you can’t get it wrong. When you want to get it right, you rehearse until you remember what you are going to say and then you press play when the time comes.

Anyone going the rehearsal route need to learn to go all the way to the other side. Rehearsing to the point that you know the speech so well that you have no problem stepping away from the script. Rehearsing until you no longer need to think about what to say and do, and you’re free to be completely in the moment.

Feeling when the audience needs a joke to make them relax, or if that other joke you wanted to say will fall flat so you skip it this time. Feeling safe about going on a small tangent based on what happened on the same morning of your talk, because you know you won’t lose your way. But above all, being free to connect with the audience and stay in the moment.

Opposite end of the spectrum is improvisation

There is an alternative to rehearsal and that is improv. Improvisation will force you to be in the moment, and if you can tap into the inspiration you can trust it will work out well. In a sense, improvisation can be a way to avoid doing the work of mastering preparation.

I’m not bashing improv though, I love it myself. Master of improvisation and master of preparation are two opposite ends of a spectrum. You want to be on either ends, not somewhere in the middle.

But I think it’s easier and more forgiving to learn and master improvisation than mastering rehearsing. Any improvisation relies heavily on this Golden Circle of connection and feedback. Preserving this circle while doing pre-prepared material is one of the hardest things to pursue. But oh so rewarding.

Trust is key to mastery

As you probably can sense, this “press play” mentality is a pet peeve of mine. It’s very prevalent even in the circles of stage professionals – actors, singers, dancers and musicians alike.

Let’s say that it’s possible to become a professional (as in making a living off it) while settling with a “press play” mentality. But if you want to achieve the level of mastery you need to go further and reach beyond that.

This is a trust thing as well. Trusting in yourself, that you can deal with whatever comes up. Trusting the audience, that they will be supporting of you. And trusting your message and what you want to say.

I cannot say that I’m a master at this craft myself. But I know what’s possible and I strive to get there. I’ve had a bit of taste of it and I’ve seen it in others.

I want to go all the way to the other side. Where there is a continuous walk on the border of blackout: think too much about what’s coming next and you lose the moment, be in the moment too much and you will forget what’s coming next.

Trust in yourself and your message

Now did you just feel discouraged from even trying public speaking, just because you’re not yet a master? Perhaps not at a comfortable place of “press play” either?

Don’t be.

Just like Steve Pavlina said, a talk full of um’s and ah’s is much preferable to the polished “professional” talk as long as the emotional connection is there.

To care about what you want to say will carry you a long way. It is your presence and your message that matters the most.

If you want to, you can train away the um’s and ah’s later.

Scroll to Top