Last email, we established the importance of practicing. Looking at the baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., we saw how he went on a run of 2632 consecutive games. To put that in perspective, for 16 years straight, the coach NEVER dropped Cal Ripken Jr. from the squad to play. Initially, I also wondered if it had something to do with his father being the manager, however this argument fails when you find out that Cal Ripken Sr. was the manager only for three out of the eighteen years. And, his stats bears out his performance during this phenomenal run. Like the man himself said, it all came down to his living and breathing the game. Practice is all about continually rehearsing and repeating to improve. You can always read that and other emails HERE!

Ok, to become and remain consistent, I need to practice continually. But practicing is boring. I remember my university days, most of my course mates would spend weeks in the library reading, that just didn’t work for me. The question then is how can I practice effectively and reap the benefits?

I thought you will never ask. Let’s dive straight in. I don’t claim to have all the answers on the best way to practice and become more consistent, but here is what works for me.

Start Small

As a child, I used to pride myself in being an average to good sprinter. I didn’t have the stamina to take on long distance racing (which in my case was anything more than 200 m).

You can imagine my state of mind during the first year of my PhD. when I learnt that the department always participates in the Batavierenrace (this is a 185 km race from Nijmegen to Enschede). As a department, we were all encouraged to participate and after complaining, they allocated me a 7 km stretch. I was overwhelmed at the thought of running for 7 km.

One of my colleagues convinced me that we should train together, to build up our endurance. On the first evening I ran some 400 m and flopped down on the floor and remember telling her –  “Karina, I am done. This will never work.”

Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy to get out of it. However, on the next evening when I pushed for 1 km (keep in mind, I wasn’t running at marathon pace but trying to sprint), I twisted my ankle. I have to be honest now, that was the best thing that could have happened to me. I didn’t have to run anymore.

However, I learnt that if you really want to go from 200 m to 7 km, start small. Take baby steps and build in sufficient breaks to give your body time to get used to it. Even now, if you observe how professional (or amateur) footballers build back their fitness after the summer break, they need to start small and take frequent breaks.

In the same way, if you want to practice your speaking skills – start small. Well, Ikenna, I can understand baby steps when it comes to preparing for a marathon. What does that have to do with speaking?

Let’s say you have to give a 20 minute presentation. Research has shown that the best stories are made up of multiples of stories (more on that in another email). In preparing for 20 minute presentation, the first step is figuring out which stories fit into the narrative you want to share.

After structuring and putting these stories together, start small means in this example means don’t try to go through the entire presentation at once. Isolate each component of the presentation and work on that. You could start with your opening. If you didn’t know already, this is the key to connect with your audience, capturing their attention and tell them what you want to tell them. Oh, and this should be very short!

You need to nail down this start and leave nothing here to chance. Your first step will be to take this your starting sentence/paragraph and work it till the line becomes part of you. Don’t forget to take a break and breathe, the brain needs time to recover to maintain focus.

Focus

This may seem like an obvious one, which is the reason I initially didn’t think to talk about it. Can you imagine practicing a presentation while playing World of Warcraft with your best friends? If you don’t know the game, a quick google will help (that’s also what I did :)).

I know some are better at multi-tasking compared to others. But this has nothing to do with your ability to multitask. Effective practice involves shutting yourself off from every distraction to focus on the ‘job’ at hand. Using our sports discussion, there is a good reason athletes don’t enter their practice field with a Nintendo game.

So, put your phone in offline/airplane mode, turn off the TV and emails. In other words, get rid of all sorts of distractions. Put your mind on the step for the day and start moving.

Increase Tempo

By starting small, you not only nailed down your starting line but also started rehearsing the full contents of your presentation. The next phase is to increase the tempo.

I remember preparing for my wedding some years back, I decided to visit the gym and build up some muscles. I still remember the very first day, stepping into the gym in the university of Twente. I directly dove into lifting weights – my goal was to increase my muscle mass, so that made sense to me. The next morning, I learnt a lesson that has stayed with me since then. I couldn’t raise my hand above my head one bit, my biceps were aching like there was no tomorrow.

Looking back on that day, I remember speaking to a friend who was more used to the gym about it. He laughed and agreed to prepare a training schedule for me which would help me build the muscle mass without breaking down. The schedule simply meant that I could slowly but surely put increasing amount of strain on my muscles. By doing this, I must confess to each time pushing myself one step further. I was doing the new stuff while repeating the old ones.

In much the same way, you can build up the tempo of your presentation. Push yourself to make it a bit more difficult, a bit faster, a bit slower. What would you do if the slides drop out? Challenge yourself to take an extra step – or someone in the audience starts dozing. While taking the next steps, keep on repeating what you’ve already mastered. By increasing the ‘strain’ you put on yourself, you are better prepared for the fun time when you actually have the audience cheering you on.

On a final note, for me when in the start small stage, I like to combine it with driving or showering. I can still multitask since the goal is test out the components of my story. However, as I gradually increase the tempo, I want to take my phone and record myself going through the entire presentation. This way, I have direct feedback from one of the greatest critics I know – myself – which helps me to keep the cycle of improvement.

But Ikenna, what if I have to deliver an impromptu speech? Good question. Next time, I will share with you the story of my failures and learnings in the art of impromptu speaking. Guess what – it is possible to master this craft.