Please don’t be perfect!

This post was also published today on Boston.com’s Global Business Hub

There’s a lot of pressure on you when you’re an opera singer. Every note must be sung perfectly in tune, every syllable pronounced perfectly as if you were fluent in the language, every facial expression carefully crafted to match the words. Even though you are human, your audience expects a super-human performance every single time you sing.

While my operatic training gave me great preparation for being a public speaker, I have realized that there’s a major difference between opera and public speaking. OK, as you can imagine there are many differences between opera and public speaking, but I’d like to focus on just one.

In public speaking, you don’t have to be perfect.

The audience doesn’t expect a super-human speech. They don’t want to see a brilliant dramatic monologue that makes them feel like they are at the theater. They don’t want to see an actor performing on stage.

In public speaking, the audience wants to see you as a real person, even if you have a few um’s or ah’s. They want to feel like they get to know you personally through your speech and they want to feel like, if they came up to you after the speech, you would be that same passionate person off stage. Public speaking is about being you at your best, whether you’re in front of 2 people or 2,000 people.

Of course, this is not an excuse to just wing it! It takes a lot of practice to “be natural.” Some of the most important elements to preparing a speech are: researching your audience in advance, crafting your speech around the message you want the audience to walk away with, and incorporating personal examples or stories that both reinforce your point and help the audience get to know you. It’s also important to practice using hand gestures, eye contact, and vocal variety to make your speech come alive. These are all tools we use naturally when we hold a conversation with someone, but when we stand nervously in front of an audience, we often forget to use them. We freeze.

Once you practice enough to be more comfortable with your material and your delivery, then you can let your natural energy and passion for your subject take control. At the end of the day, that’s what people will remember. And if you do that, ironically, it will be a great performance.

Allison M. Shapira teaches public speaking in the Harvard Kennedy School’s Communication Program and to entrepreneurs, diplomats, politicians, and nonprofit leaders from around the world. She is also a Boston World Partnerships Connector and a trained opera singer.

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One Comment on “Please don’t be perfect!”

  1. […] speaking is not about being perfect, as I’ve written about in a previous post; it’s about being authentic and passionate and conveying a message. If you know your material […]


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