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 Cincinnati Reds pitcher Ross Ohlendorf, on how athletes get ready to compete.
We caught up with Ohlendorf, ESPN’s Smartest Player in Baseball and a native Austonian, before practice one day earlier this summer. He had a lot of great insights on the importance of practice, and key styles and strategies. But three points he made seemed particularly apt for executive communication.
1. There’s a difference between preparation and practice
After 8 years in major league baseball, Ohlendorf says, 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.”
For Ohlendorf, 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?”
It’s important for speakers to recognize this difference as well. It may be helpful to dedicate a certain amount of time to honing skills — especially early on in your speaking career. But, as you approach a critical engagement, there comes a point when it’s time to switch from practicing skills to preparing for your speech. That means finalizing your content, making sure you know your subject matter like the back of your hand, and putting yourself in the right headspace to give a confident presentation.
2. Preparation is 90 percent mental
Baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra is known for his half-baked quips but, like many of them, this one has some wisdom behind it.
Ohlendorf walked me through his pre-pitch routine of taking a deep breath and zeroing in on the pitch he’s about to throw. He says it’s easy to be in the right head space if things have been going well and he’s feeling good physically. But some days, it’s more difficult to build confidence, and others, he finds himself thinking too much about the game and has to distract himself to avoid becoming drained.
“The adjustment that I would need to make, if I’m not in a good spot, would vary. But taking that deep breath and having confidence in what I’m throwing, are really what I’m aiming for.”
And Yogi’s wisdom isn’t just for baseball players.
Being in the right head space is key for speakers as well.
Briar Goldberg says many speakers she’s worked with have a hard time being mentally present for their speeches, especially when they’re nervous. In some cases they essentially black out as they talk, and the next thing they know, they’re walking off stage. In other cases, they become distracted by the voices in their head worrying that they’ve forgotten what to say next.
The routine will be different for every performer but, before taking the stage — or the field — it’s critical to spend some time making sure you’re fully present, engaged, and confident in what you’re about to do.
3. Know your audience, but know yourself better
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 practice winning a gold medal because 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.
When we asked Ohlendorf about the idea that you can’t account for the other team, he reminded me that that’s not entirely true. Every team keeps scouting reports on every other team, so when Ohlendorf is on the mound, he knows which pitches the batter is more likely to struggle with. But, to Bowman’s point, Ohlendorf can’t choose his pitches based solely on the batter’s skills.
“There always needs to be a balance of what you do well — the pitches you throw well — and the pitches the hitter won’t necessarily hit well. Finding that balance is very important to being successful.”
If a pitcher has a terrible knuckleball, but throws it anyway because he knows the batter has a history of striking out on knuckleballs, the batter is more likely to walk. The pitcher is better off sticking with his signature curveball.
Speakers, too, have to strike that balance between tailoring their performance to their audience and playing to their own strengths. And, the same way a pitcher can become more versatile (and more effective against a wider range of batters) by improving his weaker throws, a speaker can work on eliminating filler words, controlling vocal patterns, or gesturing more confidently to better engage audiences.
For more practice insights from Ohlendorf — and other top performers 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.