I was a jazz singer before becoming a corporate speechwriting and then founding Speak Up for Success. And back in the early days, when I was singing with pick-up bands and asking strangers to let me sit in, you still used to hear the phrase “Don’t shed on the stand.”
What great public speaking advice! It means “Don’t (wood)shed on the (band)stand.”
Woodshed refers to a mythic past in which musicians used to practice in the woodshed (or, in Sonny Rollins’s actual case, on the Williamsburgh Bridge).
The phrase actually means don’t practice in public. Do your preparatory work in private, then give the audience your polished best.
Yes, This Means Us!
This dictum would be big news to a lot of my former corporate clients, who routinely hit the stage to deliver speeches they’d read out loud, oh, maybe… never?
I switched from speechwriting to coaching in part to help change that. But I do understand the impulse to avoid practicing. When I was a singer, I hated to practice, because, like most people, I didn’t understand what practicing was, or how to do it.
What Practicing Is
By definition, “practice” is the act of working on something you don’t know how to do yet — and there are two general ways to think about that effort:
#2. “OK, I don’t know how to do this yet, so let’s take it slow and gentle while I’m figuring that out.”
If #1 describes your attitude, you’re probably not going to practice, and you certainly won’t enjoy the experience. But if you can adopt point of view #2 (or even pretend to), you’re ready to improve your public speaking skills.
How To Practice
There are three things to work on when you practice (and to learn more about “The Rule of 3,” check out this post):
- Practice your attitude. Having the “right words” won’t matter if you don’t connect with your audience, and that connection rests on your attitude. Surprised? Did you think it rested on their attitude? Remember, you have to power position in the room. If your attitude is one of comfort and connection, people will respond; so practice having that attitude.
- Practice your transitions. Be sure you always know what’s coming next, and lead people into your next point as you would lead them into the next room of your home if you were giving “a ten cent tour.”
- Practice anything that needs extra polish. In general, that means your opening, close, and key message, as well as any anecdotes or complicated points that you want to reliably deliver in a concise way.
There will be things in your speech that you’ve said 100 times before, or that you know inside out, upside down and standing on your head. You don’t need to practice them!
Similarly, resist the temptation to always start practicing at the beginning and go straight through to the end. Mix things up. Practice the hard parts first. Pick up halfway through, or begin with your last section. This keeps your practicing fresh, and gives you a vastly more nuanced connection to your speech, pitch or message.
You Can Do This!
The main thing to know about practicing is that anything beats nothing by a mile. Don’t wait for the perfect time, setting, or mood. Pick something small from a speech or message that you’ll be delivering soon, and practice.
Whether you’re working with a speaker coach, or going it alone, you’re better off practicing for one minute a day than practicing for an hour a week. Anyone can find one minute a day, and the benefits are pretty exciting.
Which you’ll find out, once you begin!