Speaking as a sport
Image via Shutterstock

What if we saw speaking as a sport?

by Sam Horn

I was coaching a client who admitted that, even though she’s a successful executive, she still gets nervous when she speaks. She had an important presentation coming up and was afraid she might freeze up.

I asked her, “Are you an athlete?”

“Yes. I swam in college and I work out or do yoga several times a week.”

“Good. From now on, you’re going to approach speaking as a sport.”

“There are two kinds of athletes. Those who, when the game is on the line, step back and say, ‘Don’t give me the ball’ and those who step up and say, ‘Give me the ball.’ From now on, see speaking as a sport. Prep like you would for a championship match.”

Here’s how.

1. Check out the venue in advance so you have home-field advantage.

When I speak at events, I always go to the meeting room the night before, when no one’s around.

I take the stage, throw my heart to the back of the room and give part of my presentation with the same voice, volume and animation I would before an audience of a thousand.

As Pop Warner said, ‘You play the way you practice.’ You can’t practice with 50% effort and expect to show up and be 100% excellent.

The same is true for speaking. You can’t expect to play your best if you haven’t rehearsed with the same focus and intensity you want for the real-thing.

2. Go for a walk/rehearse the morning of the event or meeting to get out of your head and into your body.

I asked my client, “Have you been told to practice your speech in front of a mirror?”


“That’s terrible advice!” I told her.

“Practicing in front of a mirror focuses you on you which makes you overly self-aware. You want to focus on your audience, not on how you look or what people think of you. You want to become so wrapped up in what you want to say and why, you forget to be afraid.”

“You’ve heard of M.B.W.A.? Manage By Walking Around? That’s when you get out of your office and walk around the building to connect with employees to find out what matters to them.

R.W.W.A. is Rehearse While Walking Around. This is when you get out of the office/hotel and walk around before a presentation to mentally connect with your audience and practice giving a message that will matter to them.

Not only does this kick-start my endorphins, align my right and left brain and get my energy flowing, it helps me get in my athletic wheelhouse so I’m raring to go. Plus, looking around at my surroundings while rehearsing my key points is a way to practice multi-focus speaking and set up ConZONEtration – the sublime peak performance state where you’re focused on what you’re doing – while, at the same time, adapting to your surroundings.

For example, a world-class athlete can respond to the elements (i.e., a change in the wind, a heckler) without allowing it to break their focus. They have mastered the ability to focus on what they’re saying now… and shift what they’re going to say next… based on the reactions of the audience and what’s happening in the room.

My client said, ‘Sam, I agree with R.W.W.A. in theory, but it doesn’t always work in real-life. What if I’m running late and arrive minutes before I’m scheduled to present?”

I asked, “How much money are you asking for in this pitch?”

“$1.5 million.”

“So, you’re asking for a million+ dollars and you wouldn’t invest a few hours to prep yourself ahead of time to increase the likelihood of closing this deal?

You’ve spent a year putting this venture together, developing your project, and assembling your team; and you wouldn’t do the one thing that could make the difference between you walking in feeling pressured and panicked… or walking in feeling poised and powerful?

Your future may rest on whether you get a yes from someone in this room. Isn’t it worth arriving early to walk/rehearse – just like an athlete would for their Olympic event – so you’re in the zone and prepared to do your best and be your best?”

As actress Faye Dunaway said, “Fear is a pair of handcuffs on your soul.” Focusing on doubts feeds fear which keeps you in neck-up nervousness and handcuffs your confidence.

3. Ground yourself by assuming an athletic stance so you’re ready for anything.

Another way to be in the moment instead of in your head is to put yourself in the “ready position” that tennis players adopt when receiving a serve.

If you want to exude an executive presence, adopt an athletic posture.

Walk to the center of the stage or the room vs. hiding behind a lectern. Face the audience, head on. Plant your feet shoulder-width-apart, knees slightly bent, so you’re grounded yet ready to react. This makes you feel physically and mentally “quick on your feet.” Stand tall and look the audience straight in the eye (tower vs. cower). You’ll feel more confident of your ability to respond to whatever happens.

No fig-leaf position. Clasping your hands together tightens you up and makes people feel you’re trying to hide something. Instead, hold your hands out like you’re holding a basketball. This opens you to the audience and leaves your hands free to gesture naturally. You’ll find yourself organically acting out what you’re saying, without even thinking about it.

Think to yourself, “I am so looking forward to this. ‘Gimme the ball.’ Beam out a smile, from the heart, to the group and then focus on what matters, which is delivering a message that is a win for everyone in the room… including you.

Sam Horn

About Sam Horn

Sam Horn, Intrigue Expert and author of POP: Stand Out in Any Crowd and Tongue Fu!, helps people craft high-stakes communications (i.e. TED Talks, pitches, keynotes, campaign speeches) that get remembered and get results. Please follow Sam on Twitter: @SamHornIntrigue

Tags: , , , , , ,