As a recovering perfectionist myself, I see how the urge to be a ‘perfect’ speaker does more harm than good to our speaking prospects. But how do you overcome the urge to be perfect, when it seems like such a good idea?
As I mentioned in this article on Perfect being the Enemy of Good, Perfectionism is not our aim in public speaking, but a nervous habit that can be off-putting for our audience.
Perfectionism increases fear
The biggest trouble with perfectionism is that it increases the fear of public speaking. There is an often-quoted statistic from Bruskin Associates that says that people are, in general, more afraid of public speaking than dying. I believe, this is, in part, due to the belief that when you speak in front of a group of people, you fear being horribly humiliated by making a mistake (unless you’re perfect).
As Amanda Neville recently wrote for Forbes magazine in her wonderful article “Perfectionism Is The Enemy of Everything.” :
Self-oriented perfectionism is problematic because it can lead to obsessiveness; inefficiency; and a multitude of serious mental health issues that affect attendance, performance, and morale. You’ll often see a perfectionist procrastinate because she’s afraid of failing before she starts.
This is a really bad way to relate to public speaking. We all have an internal dialogue that judges how we’re doing when we’re trying to speak in public. We’ve addressed this previously by discussing how to challenge your inner saboteur.
Am I a Perfectionist?
Psychologists have spotted four key behaviours of a perfectionist that I often see in my public speaking clients. If you have any of the following habits then you could be a perfectionist:
- Taking failure to heart;
- Ruminating over failure, even a long time after it has passed;
- Turning one failure, “I failed on this occasion” into a generalisation, “I am a failure”
- Treating ambiguous or neutral feedback as negative.
Perfectionists rely heavily on their success to feel a sense of self-worth, so if they fail, or are worried that they will fail, they will experience a high degree of distress or anxiety.
Three Key Thoughts Counteract Perfectionism
Counteracting perfectionism is a practice that you will develop by changing your thought patterns. Here are three useful thoughts to reinforce:
- Your audience is more often than not, on your side. If you make a mistake, they have compassion. They are not looking to cut you down or ridicule you, unless you’re dealing with a sniper in the room. Just accept you made a mistake and move on with grace. Your audience will go with you.
- Unless your mistake brings about mass extinction or the end of life as we know it, a blooper on the stage is NOT the end of the world. Odds are, no one else noticed… so why do you?
- Relax and it will actually be better. As Seymour Segnit, phobia expert – Founder and President of CTRN, once said, “the anxious energy that often goes into trying to make something absolutely perfect is totally counterproductive.” The more you attempt to be perfect, the more you are likely to make a mistake.
The best public speakers make mistakes and then move on. There have been countless professional speakers with malfunctioning technology, broken heels, and even forgetting their lines. It happens. What’s different about each of these speakers is that they acknowledge the blunder, usually with humor, and then move on. They don’t bring undue attention to the goof and they don’t let it derail them from their message. They get on with it!
“If you look at the very best speakers out there,” Segnit said, “those with the most powerful stage presence – say Barack Obama or Tony Robbins – they make mistakes, and they make them all the time – but it makes no difference to their momentum and their message.”
What to do when Perfectionism attacks!
- Use logic. Ask questions like “What evidence do I have to support this perfectionist thought?”
- Replace perfectionistic thoughts with realistic ones.
- Simply identifying perfectionism will decrease the power it has over you. Always challenge your thoughts to bring this to light.
- When you spot your inner perfectionist, treat yourself with warmth & humour. Isn’t it cute that you’re so keen to be perfect… but isn’t it quite funny as well?
- Of course you should make sure that you allow yourself enough time to prepare and rehearse for your presentation, but resist the urge to obsessively over-prepare. Set yourself a timeframe and then stop and think about something else.
- If you can, connect your talk to a subject that you are very familiar with or are passionate about. By addressing familiar subject matter, you are more likely to see the audience as friendly and sincerely interested in what you have to say, rather than concerned about your imperfections.