Supercompetent Speaking: Are You Trying Too Hard?

The line between enough preparation and too much preparation can be very thin.

Your big presentation is coming up. You’ve talked with the client, interviewed several audience members, conducted your research, crafted beautiful slides, and practiced your speech for hours. Everything’s in place. The time has come. You’re dressed to the nines and practically jumping out of your skin with eager anticipation.

With all this enormous effort, have you tried too hard? The line between enough preparation and too much preparation can be very thin.

According to some researchers, when you focus too hard on anything, you run the risk of experiencing the “ironic effect” and doing exactly what you’re trying to avoid. This brings to mind an old Far Side cartoon, showing a concert cymbalist poised to play—one hand holding a cymbal, the other not. The cymbalist is thinking fervently, “Don’t screw up! Don’t screw up! Don’t screw up!” while the caption reads, “Roger screws up.”

After 22 years as a professional speaker, I can tell the difference in myself: When I try too hard, I’m “tight.” I feel less present and put undue pressure on myself to “perform,” which makes me feel anxious. My self-talk makes it worse, asking, “Who are you to advise these people?” It can make me feel inadequate and go into a tailspin.

If you’ve ever over-prepared, I bet you know exactly what I mean. How do you course-correct in such a situation, so you preparation pays off? Once you take the platform:

  • Relax. If you present yourself as stiff, precise, or not spontaneous enough, your audience will pick up on that. People who come across as too tight or too overly controlled can seem unfriendly. Relax—in body and mind. Loosen up your body language and try to connect with the audience. Don’t come across as too forceful or needy. Desperation is not an attractor factor.
  • Expect your audience to be friendly. After all, they came expressly to hear what you have to say. They are on your side and want you to succeed. Think of them in their chairs, rooting for you. Audiences are hoping, “Oh, dear God, help this speaker be good!” They will be delighted when you are.
  • Don’t be patronizing. Don’t try to be cool, talk down to people, or act like some guru on the mountaintop. Just because you know the subject thoroughly doesn’t make you better than anyone in your audience. No one appreciates a snooty know-it-all. Just treat them as the professionals they are, communicating your knowledge in an authoritative, straightforward way. Know the knowledge is sitting right there before you, and it’s your job to draw it out.
  • Don’t overload people with data. When you’re a top expert on your subject (or at least the top expert in the room), the tendency is to try to share everything you know. Instead, give people the best of the best, without worrying about giving them “your best stuff.” Believe me, there will never be a second chance to wow them if you don’t wow them the first time.
  • Don’t be artificial. We’ve all witnessed people trying to be something they’re not. The verb, “to try,” suggests the possibility of failure. Humor, for example: If it comes naturally, then fine, be funny. But trying to force a joke is just awkward. If you use an elevated vocabulary, so be it. But using unfamiliar prose will just trip you up and cause you to stumble on your words. In fact, don’t try to be witty, clever, tough, or anything if it’s not your authentic self. Be honest and display your best professional YOU.

Tangled Up in Irony

Although you should keep the above factors in mind, my best advice about not trying too hard is simply this: Don’t worry. Don’t under-prepare, but don’t overwhelm the audience (or yourself) either. Relax! And for heaven’s sake, don’t focus too much on not trying too hard—or you just might.

Don’t be Roger.

Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, is an expert in productivity. For more than 20 years, Stack has worked with business leaders to execute more efficiently, boost performance, and accelerate results in the workplace. Her company, The Productivity Pro, Inc., provides productivity workshops around the globe to help attendees achieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time. Stack is the bestselling author of six books, with more than 20 foreign editions, published by Random House, Wiley, and Berrett-Koehler, including her newest work, “Execution IS the Strategy” (March 2014). An expert in the field of performance and workplace issues, Stack has been featured on the CBS Early Show, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. Connect via her website, Facebook, or Twitter.