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How Much Should You Really Practice? Preparation Habits of Highly Successful Musicians, Athletes, & Speakers

You’ve probably heard the joke: A guy’s lost in New York and he stops an old musician on the street to ask him how to get to Carnegie Hall. Hardly looking up, the musician replies, “Practice.”

Our business is helping leaders become best-in-class communicators, which means we spend a lot of time working with clients on their preparation strategies. We know as well as anyone that the old musician’s mandate applies to public speaking as well. Practice is critical to success in any presentation.

On average, the ratio of preparation to performance is one hour of practice for every minute of performance.

 

This is the rule of thumb we suggest for all of our new speakers and, though the recommendation may seem steep at first, we’ll explain why it makes sense.

To confirm, we talked to four masters of their fields: a presidential advisor, a TED speaker, a major league baseball player, and a country musician. Their insights supported our theory: even the most natural presenters take practice and preparation just as seriously as we ask our clients to.

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How Do U.S. Presidential Candidates Prepare for Debates?

The fourth season of House of Cards included some great rehearsal montages, showing the care and precision Frank Underwood took to perfect his delivery. And you have to admit, despite his many terrifying qualities, the man’s a great speaker.

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But what about real, live U.S. presidents? Public speaking is a critical element of the job but, much like CEOs and their companies, how much time can presidents carve out to prepare when they’ve got an entire country to run? Mark McKinnon, producer of the Showtime hit “The Circus” and former advisor to President George W. Bush, was able to provide some insight. According to McKinnon, the bulk of the preparation time is devoted to actually writing the speech. The president will sit down with the speechwriters and go over content and goals for the address, then the writers will go off and write. The president will review and the writers will revise, until the president is happy. For Bush, he says, a speech could easily go through 20 drafts or more.

As far as actual rehearsal goes, all there’s time for — even for an event as big as a State of the Union — is one or two run-throughs with the teleprompter.

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When it comes to the debates during the presidential race, however, the process is a little different. McKinnon tells us that the good candidates understand the importance of these events and prepare accordingly. This includes plenty of content briefings, then several mock rehearsals.

“Presidential candidates take practice so seriously that many of them do their mock sessions at the exact same time of night the debate will happen, even setting the temperature in the room to match the temperature in the debate hall.”

Like any high stakes engagement, political or not, the key is to make sure the candidate is focused, comfortable, and confident. “Nothing is more important than instilling confidence for a debate,” McKinnon says, “which means different things to different candidates, but the important thing is to get their head in the right place so they feel like Muhammed Ali going into the ring.”

How Do TED Speakers Prepare?

Since its origins in 1984, TED has evolved into a global phenomenon, known for producing some of the most engaging, memorable talks on record. It stands to reason that to play in TED’s league requires plenty of practice.

Back in February, Noah Zandan learned firsthand how much a TED speaker is expected to rehearse. Between guided rehearsals with TED coaches, and nearly eight months of preparation, he estimates he spent nearly 100 hours writing, rewriting, and rehearsing the talk.

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“Speaking is a unique challenge because, unlike in athletics where the game itself is a foundation, speakers are usually starting from scratch to develop the material before they can even start practicing. This is why many TED speakers spend up to 100 hours preparing their talks.”

Quantified Communications coaches Briar Goldberg and Maegan Stephens have both worked with dozens of TED speakers to write and rehearse their talks. On average, they spend 15 to 20 hours with each speaker, outside of the handful of TED-run rehearsals and any writing, research, or preparation the speakers do on their own.

And the speakers do plenty on their own, as Zandan witnessed firsthand in February.

“I didn’t know what preparing for a presentation really meant until I spoke at TED.”

Behind closed doors in the speaker’s green room, even Al Gore was practicing like crazy, debating every word with his on-site communications team and refining his delivery right up to Go Time. And Zandan’s fellow TED2016 speaker Adam Grant speaks fondly of the months he spent preparing for his 15 minute talk.

This dedication, and the dedication so many TED speakers demonstrate, is right in line with Goldberg’s number one rule: “I don’t care how good you think you are, you can’t wing it.”

How Do Pro Athletes Get Ready to Compete?

According to Michael Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, the purpose of practice is to enable athletes to achieve their vision. In Phelps’ case, that’s swimming fast enough to win gold. And, while you can’t control other swimmers’ performance, you can hone the skills that will help achieve your vision.  “If you’re fast enough, the outcome will take care of itself,” says Bowman.

To prepare for the 2016 Olympics, Phelps began practicing in September of 2013. His schedule accounted for all of the 1,068 days up to the Rio Games.

To further understand how professional athletes approach practice and preparation, we spoke with Ross Ohlendorf, a pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds.

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Ohlendorf says, eight years into his career, it’s less about “practice” and more about “preparation.”

“Whereas, earlier in my career, there was more time spent on what I would have considered practice, which would be the intent of improving and changing things, now it’s more about just making sure that I have the right combination of being rested and activated and in a good mental state so, when it’s time to actually play the game, I’m ready to do well.”

Although he no longer focuses quite as much as practicing skills, Ohlendorf says preparing for a game is still paramount. That means starting most mornings with a cardio workout or a swim — something he does now more than he did when he was a younger player and more focused on watching video, spending time in the weight room, and working on pitches. Throughout the rest of the day, he chooses his activities, his meals, and his rest based on one question: “Do I need to be ready to pitch tonight?”

As far as actual time spent on the field before a game, doing things that would look like practice, Ohlendorf says it’s probably about an hour.

“If I were to just go from sitting down to trying to pitch in a game, I’d probably get hurt, and I wouldn’t pitch very well. If I did too much activity before, I may wear myself out, so there’s an optimum in there, where I’m doing enough activation where I’m ready to perform without exhausting myself more than I need to.”

How Does a Rock Star Rehearse?

Paul Simon is known as a “musical perfectionist.” When he was a teenager, his baseball coach chastised him for focusing on music instead of athletics, and his parents scolded him for letting schoolwork take a backseat to his guitar: “You practice guitar for a straight six hours a day when you should be studying.”

The results speak for themselves. Simon’s songs have been broadcast over 100 million times, and three of his sixteen albums — Bridge Over Troubled Water, Still Crazy After All These Years, and Gracelandhave won the Grammy for Best Album.

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"I'm happy to spend a year and a half on a song."
- Paul Simon

To find out whether this reverence for practice extended to other musicians, we spoke with Ray Benson, the front man for country’s Asleep at the Wheel and a nine-time Grammy winner.

Even after 40-plus years of performing, Benson still dedicates plenty of time to practice.

“I practice what I want to accomplish. When I’m having trouble playing something, or when I need to practice a certain style. For instance, I started doing finger picking, and I wanted to do more of that, so I spent every night sitting at home working on different finger picking pieces, or on the bus before the show.”


And for Benson, practice is the key to unlocking creativity.

"Practice is so important, you know? Practice isn’t about going over what you know, but finding new ways to say what you want to say."

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Benson emphasized the importance of practice for developing muscle memory so that, when you get on stage, the song you’re playing — or speech you’re giving — feels familiar and you can focus on being present in the moment with your audience, rather than worrying about execution.

“You hit the series of notes a certain way and they're familiar and your diaphragm, your throat, your tongue, it all feels like you’ve been there before.”

It’s this deep familiarity with technique that allows Benson — and other world-class performers — to set aside the rules and let the performance flow.

“You have to be in the moment and you have to forget all of the physical things that you've learned in order to express yourself. You have to forget about technique. You have to forget about everything and let the creativity lead you.”

Of course, for every rule, there’s an exception, and Benson told us who it is:

“Willie Nelson? I think he’s rehearsed twice.”

What Does All This Tell Us About Becoming a Master of Performance?

While every top performer we spoke to approached preparation in a different way, these masters all had one piece of advice in common:

Don’t underestimate the value of practice.

Just like the violinist trying to get to Carnegie Hall, any speaker who wants to be best-in-class must put in the hours to get there.

Vets like Ohlendorf may have evolved their regimens into something that looks more like preparation than practice but, make no mistake, these pros are still taking the time to make sure they’re at their best for every performance.

We encourage our executive clients to do the same, and we hope they’ll channel the presidential candidates McKinnon talked about, who do everything in their power to replicate the performance in their rehearsals. Quantified Communications coach Briar Goldberg recommends speakers at every level get in at least three full runs — practicing exactly how they plan to perform — before stepping in front of the audience.

And, finally, our coaches recommend new speakers take Benson’s advice to heart and develop muscle memory by spending one hour preparing for every minute of performance. That way, when it’s time to get on stage the mechanics are simple, and all there is to worry about is capturing the audience.

 

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