What has worked for Athletes can be the key to unlocking your ability to get on stage and ensure your message resonates with any audience.
For those who know me, you know that two of my passions are speaking in front of real, live people and being an athlete, with a specific focus on running and cycling. You could look at those and think they are just two unrelated aspects of my interests that make me a well-rounded person. But the reality is, the two are intertwined in a surprising way.
That way is cross-training.
“Huh?” You ask? Let me explain.
What is Cross-Training?
To be a really good athlete, you need to train for more than just your core activity. And even when you train for that core thing, you need to do it in varied ways (different speeds, inclines, resistance, weather, etc). Michael Phelps does not just swim one stroke for every work out, nor does he just swim. Top athletes do other cardio activities, do some weight training, maybe do yoga and other things, too.
The reason? Well, there are many, but one of the key reasons is that it builds resilience and fills up your bag of tricks you can pull from when you get thrown a curve ball. You develop what are called, “Adaptations,” which are ways your body is able to respond to different demands put on it by adapting to the nuances of these demands.
For example, running tends to get my heart rate going pretty high (for those who know about this stuff, I tend to end up in Zone 3 and Zone 4 when training, regardless of speed or duration). Cycling, however, is where I can stay in a lower heart rate zone for long durations. That is how you tend to build real cardio-respiratory endurance, which you need to call on for long runs or other endurance events. That is, cycling helped me develop my running capability.
Or, if you just practiced as a skier doing race courses, what happens when you hit a course in a race where a rut has developed? Suddenly, you need some serious leg strength and rapid response capabilities to recover from hitting that rut so you can stay on the course. That strength and speed come from doing squats, jumps and other lower-body and core exercises that you will struggle to build by just skiing. As a former ski racer, I saw this first hand through our extensive dry land training that augmented our time on the snow.
Cross-Training for Speaking
I was talking to another speaker earlier in January who is preparing for a big talk, and he wanted help breaking through feeling stuck in his preparation. He talked about writing out his script, memorizing it, but struggling in the delivery in past talks he’s done. He and I have debated scripting your talks in the past since I do not believe in doing it (and neither do Jay-Z or Lil’ Wayne), so I was surprised he reached out to talk about this. As we got into it, I started to share the reasons why I do not advocate memorizing a script, and a big one is all about resilience. This is where cross-training in preparing for a talk comes in.
The problem with scripts is that they work the same way every time, regardless of what else is happening. Unfortunately, life does not work like that.
What this means is that, when we get thrown a curve ball that breaks our connection to that script, we suddenly find ourselves unable to continue the talk because we only knew one way to deliver it.
Perhaps your slides or notes vanish from the screen; someone sneezes at precisely the wrong moment; people laugh at something you did not intend to be a joke or do not laugh at what you did mean to be funny; you trip on stage; or any number of other things that can cause you to detach from your script even momentarily. This makes it hard to get back into the flow.
Or, if you are able to get back into the script, the whole thing ends up feeling awkward, forced or disjointed because you are almost turning the steering wheel 90-degrees to get back on course, jerking the whole audience around with you when you do. As a result, your talk will not resonate as strongly as it could have.
How to Cross-Train as a Speaker
What cross-training does for an athlete, it can do for a speaker. It builds resilience in the face of different situations. That way, you are comfortable saying what you need to say in a variety of ways.
For me, I have key points I write out in an outline, and then I start practicing delivering those points in a spoken rehearsal (out loud, and hopefully recording it in case I want to go back and hear how I did something). I practice multiple times a day, and I can promise you that no two rehearsals are exactly the same. I make my points slightly differently, I may forget something important and need to work my way back without disrupting the overall talk, the phone may ring or any number of other things. I even will change locations or which way I am facing to add variety.
The point is, I am rehearsing giving the talk a little differently in slightly different situations each time. That is, I am cross-training my delivery.
Athletes are training not just their muscular capacity, but also muscle memory so their body can naturally respond. You are doing the same with your brain. Since speaking is an audio linguistic activity, if you just memorized a written script, you would not be training the right mind muscle, so to speak. Scripts exist in the written linguistic processing world in your mind. The two are related, but different. Audio processing involves less concrete or fixed concepts, so you need to cross-train your brain around this flexibility that written words would rob you of. You are not only building a bigger repertoire of ways to make your point (the muscular capacity of an athlete), but also training your brain on how to call those options up in different settings (the muscle memory of an athlete).
Suspend Disbelief and Be a Great Speaker
Ultimately, many people want to write a script because they tell themselves they are not good speakers, have a fear of speaking in public, or will forget what they are going to say without it.
I say, “Stop it.”
Stop telling yourself all the ways you cannot do it or need a crutch. Allow for the possibility that you know your content. And unless you have extensive experience that you are a bad public speaker who has massive stage fright, stop insisting this to be the case.
Change how you think about yourself, practice your talk out loud, naturally, in a variety of ways. Build that mental muscle through a rich, cross-trained practice approach, and resonate with the audience when the time comes as a genuine person who connected with them meaningfully.