I have one particular student who frustrates me every time he gets up to speak, and it’s all a matter of unfulfilled potential.

Probably not the best statement for a professor of public speaking to make, right? But let me explain. This student has amazing natural talent. He is warm and engaging and entertaining. I know I’ll never be bored during his speeches. I won’t have to write two of my more common feedback responses: “try to look up from your notes and make more eye contact,” or “aim to be more conversational.”

But this student is trying to use his charisma to replace solid content. If he put in the time and effort to live up to his potential, his presentations could go from entertaining, but empty, to truly amazing.

Charisma Can’t Replace Content

The current trend in public speaking is toward authenticity. We don’t want speakers who present like robots, cold and perfect. We want speakers who are warm and conversational, who speak to hundreds of people they way they would speak to just one person. But that doesn’t mean we want presentations to be so casual that they feel impromptu or unprepared.

In his book, Presenting to Win: The Art of Telling Your Story Jerry Weissman puts it this way. “All the vocal dynamics and animated body language in the world can’t improve a confusing story, while a clear and concise story can give a presenter clarity of mind to present with poise.” In other words, you will actually deliver your presentation better if you feel confident about the content you’ve prepared.

It’s Hard Work

In his book Win Forever: Live, Work, and Play Like a Champion, Pete Carroll says, “My experience is that once you have done the work to create the clear vision, it is the discipline and effort to maintain that vision that can make it all come true. The two go hand in hand. The moment you’ve created that vision, you’re on your way, but it’s the diligence with which you stick to that vision that allows you to get there.”

A great presentation is usually the culmination of weeks, if not months, of hard work and preparation. If you aren’t willing to put the work in ahead of time, you can’t possibly know what kind of potential you have as a speaker. Winging it will never give you an accurate picture of just how impactful you can be. Think of the way an athlete conditions in the preseason. It’s all of those moments out of view and ahead of time that eventually make way for greatness.

The TED organization suggests the following schedule for a speaker.

  • 6 months before the event’s day: Thesis and basic outline due
  • 5 months out: A script or detailed outline due
  • 4 months out: Second draft and first rehearsals
  • 3 months out: Final draft and more rehearsals
  • 2 months out: Bi-weekly rehearsals
  • 1 month out: Weekly rehearsals
  • 2 weeks out: Take a break. (Don’t think about the talk.)
  • 1 week out: Rehearsals
  • 1-2 days out: Dress rehearsals

While not every speaker will have that much lead time into a presentation, it’s important to remember that many of the speeches you see online are result of months of hard work. You can’t expect to emulate that level of speaking without the preseason workouts.

So here are the big questions. Are you living up to your potential as a speaker? Are you putting in the necessary preparation ahead of time? And are you giving yourself the best chance to truly excel when it comes time to deliver?

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