Sarah Weber

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What Can Country Music Teach Us About Public Speaking?

At Quantified Communications, we can’t emphasize practice enough — no matter how big or small the presentation. Last month, we stepped back from public speaking and went in search of a broader perspective. We wanted to find out how top players in other performance-driven fields approach practice, so we reached out to a pro baseball player, a famous country musician, a TED speaker, and a presidential advisor.

From these experts’ insights, we identified the preparation habits of highly successful performers. Now, we want to dive deeper into the lessons we learned from country music star Ray Benson.

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Benson is the front man for country band Asleep at the Wheel, which has released more than 20 albums and won 9 Grammy awards since moving to Austin in 1973. When we spoke to Benson, he shared plenty of stories about his practice style, as well as the way friends like Willie Nelson approach their own music.

But three of the country star’s practice secrets seemed particularly apt for the speakers we work with at Quantified Communications.
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1. Practice is about developing muscle memory

In his book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Enterprise, Anders Ericsson (the mind behind the 10,000 hour rule), reminds aspiring experts that knowing is not the same as doing:

“When you look at how people are trained in the professional and business worlds, you find a tendency to focus on knowledge at the expense of skills. The main reasons are tradition and convenience: it is much easier to present knowledge to a large group of people than it is to set up conditions under which individuals can develop skills through practice.”

But all that knowledge is essentially useless until you activate it through physical practice, as Ray Benson knows well:

“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 the primary goal of individual practice, according to Benson, is repetition.

“It’s over and over, making sure that your muscle feels comfortable in doing this. It's especially important for singing because there's so much muscle memory. 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.”

The same is true for public speaking, and muscle memory applies to both content and delivery. You work with your script and your content so you’re familiar with the way your message sounds and the way each key point connects to the next. But you also work on physical muscle memory: what are your hands doing while you’re speaking? What do your body language and facial expressions look like? How does your voice sound, and what does it feel like when you’re speaking at the right pace?

And the only way to build that muscle memory is to spend time practicing — working through drills and exercises by yourself or with a coach between every engagement.

2. Proper preparation makes improvisation simple

“Improvisation is the culmination of practice and creativity.”

- Benson

Despite the importance of developing muscle memory by practicing technique, a key element of any presentation is listening to the audience and reacting or adjusting appropriately. The idea is similar to the way Benson said a guitarist might improvise a solo onstage:

“You have a set of chords and a structure, and within that you, you create melody. And for that you have to be totally open to the music. You have to forget about technique. You have to forget about everything and let the creativity lead you.”

As Benson riffed on practice versus creativity, Quantified Communications CEO, Noah Zandan, likened the balance to watching Bill Clinton speak:

“Bill Clinton is up there on stage with a list of stories, and he can go based off the audience and pull out the best ones for the right moment, you know, he doesn't have to get up there and say every word as it's been written down in preparation.”

Right on the money, according to Benson, who went on to compare the former president to the current candidates:

“Yeah as opposed to Hillary, who's the opposite of Bill, and everything's got to be scripted on her plate. And then you look at Trump, who is like a 13-year-old kid, jumping to this, that, and the other. He is off the cuff, and I'm not saying he's good, but I'm saying that you have to be able to improvise.”

Just like a musician has the chords and the technique down pat, if you’re a speaker, you know the story you’re telling and each key point you need to get across. But you’re also comfortable enough with the techniques you’ve been practicing that you can focus your energy on connecting with your audience — even if that means making small adjustments on the fly.

3. Technology changes the way we prepare

Benson has been playing with Asleep at the Wheel for over 40 years, and he’s seen plenty of advancements in technology that have changed the way he approaches practice. Specifically, he told us how getting ready to record an album has changed.

“When we started out, the technology of recording was such that you rehearsed, rehearsed, rehearsed, then you walked into the studio and you played what you’d rehearsed. Because you didn't have computers, this that and the other, multitrack, you know, was four-track and eight-track when we started, so that was the deal. And you had to do it all at once.”

Benson told us Willie Nelson recorded Red Headed Stranger this way, cutting the entire album in just six hours.

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Nowadays, though, said Benson, it’s a different story:

“Now as technology evolved, we now have the opportunity to do anything. And now it's a different animal because we just want to capture moments, and that requires a whole lot less preparation, but it also allows for much more creativity. We can try anything and not worry, because we can erase it or we can store it, and we'll do it again.”

Sorry, speakers, technological advancements haven’t eliminated the need for practice. But they have created some new opportunities to make rehearsals more efficient and effective. Now that we can apply data analytics to communication coaching, we can to help clients achieve far better results with far less time invested. What’s more, artificial intelligence can provide coaches and speakers with initial recommendations and calculated improvement plans. And as virtual reality continues to evolve, speakers will be able to rehearse in a simulation of their actual presentation environment.

Technology will never eliminate the need for practice or coaching but, like it’s done for Asleep at the Wheel and other artists, it will change the way speakers prepare for a performance.

 

For more practice insights from Benson — and other rockstars like him — be sure to check out last month’s “Preparation Habits of Highly Successful Musicians, Athletes, and Speakers.”

To find out how Quantified Communications can use analytics to help your executives create effective rehearsal strategies, email us at info@quantifiedcommunications.com.

 

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