Several weeks ago I spent a wonderful three hours savoring
the Thomas Gainsborough exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The
largest exhibit room was filled with life-size portraits spanning a period
of about 20 years of Gainsborough’s work. The audio commentary
on this room began with a suggestion to compare the technique used by
Gainsborough in the earliest portrait with that of one painted at the
end of this time frame. He then suggested that with more experience and
confidence, Gainsborough was much less precise and detailed. And this
was very true. The earliest portrait was exceedingly precise, with the
smallest detail of the person and his environment articulated through
the paint, but there was little animation in the painting, and it felt
rather dull to me. By contrast, the portrait done 20 years later was a
much softer but more expressive piece filled with movement and feeling.
It was vibrant and alive, capturing both the features and the essence
of the subject. While the details were not fully articulated, my mind
was quite capable of filling in the blanks.
What I’m struck with is that our attempts at perfection
– our attempts at capturing every last detail – frequently have
a cost. This applies to speaking as well as to art. When we prepare for
a presentation there is often the strong inclination to put the whole
talk in writing and then memorize it word for word as a way to ensure
that we get every detail right. We want it to be perfect, and so we rehearse
and practice and run the talk through our minds repeatedly in preparation.
We now have three options. If we truly want to say it just
as planned, then the only thing to do is to read the talk word for word.
But the cost of this is enormous – the presentation can become dull
and lifeless and we lose all possibility of connecting with our audience.
Another approach is to give the talk and refer to our notes repeatedly
– but it’s so easy to lose our place that the flow of the
talk is lost. Or, finally, we could try to give the talk entirely from
memory. This raises a number of potential problems: we could very easily
stumble as we struggle to remember the precise turn of phrase that we
had so artfully expressed in our written piece; we might get lost and
then panic as we try to remember what was the next significant point;
or we might completely blank out and not remember anything that we had
so carefully planned. No wonder we feel so much anxiety preparing for
In the years that I have spent giving presentations, I have
found that the more I succumb to the urge to practice what I’m going
to say before the presentation, the more attached I become to saying something
in just that precise way. I find that rather than just allowing the words
to flow through me in the moment, I keep having to refer back to what
I thought would be a good way to express it. I get so caught up in my
thinking that I then become very mechanical in my presentation.
There’s a paradox here and it’s quite counter-intuitive.
Our fear of forgetting, of not remembering every last detail, causes us
to over-prepare, to write out the speech word for word, and to repeatedly
rehearse its delivery. And by doing so, we create the perfect conditions
for forgetting. The less we are bound by the words that we write and practice,
the more freedom we have to flow with what we know.
This is not to say that we don’t prepare. It is very
important that we know our material and that we have internalized it.
It is also essential that we clearly think through and organize the structure
and flow of the talk.
That said, I have found that I am most effective as a speaker
when all I have in my mind is a seed of an idea of what to say and a well-organized
plan of where I want to go. When I do this, I am often at my most articulate.
In contrast, the more I rehearse precisely what I’m going to say
and how I’m going to say it, the more I trip myself up. To go back
to the art analogy I referred to earlier, all I need as a guide is a single
line of thought, a seed of an idea, to suggest my direction and I can
then fill in the details while giving the presentation. If I try to fill
in all the details in advance, my talks lose their freshness and can become
Just as with the art example, though, there’s a level
of experience and confidence necessary to get to the point that we have
enough trust to let go of the need to articulate all the details ahead
of time. It took Thomas Gainsborough 20 years of practice. The ability
to speak without memorizing our talk word for word requires trust and
confidence, and this is a process not an end result. I continue
to bounce back and forth between wanting to practice and rehearse and
trusting that what I have to say will surface at the appropriate time.
We need to find places and contexts that feel safe enough for us
to try out different “presentation palettes” – to experiment
and play with how we prepare and present. And, with practice, we can begin
to develop the freedom to be as expressive and engaging as Gainsborough
was toward the end of his career.