Practice 25 times

When professional actors prepare for a role, they usually rehearse for hours, or days or weeks, learning how to make a particular facial tick appear at just the right time. When she was preparing for the movie Gravity, Sandra Bullock practiced one of the moves for five months, in order to make it look natural and unrehearsed. One tiny move, over and over and over, for five… MONTHS!

Even improv comedy actors practice. They don’t practice their lines, of course, but they practice the skills of improv. Rest assured that behind every brilliant impromptu skit is hours, days, months, perhaps years of practice.

Trust me, for years I’ve heard people say, “I’m better when I don’t practice,” or “I sound more natural when I don’t practice,” or even the seemingly logical, “If I rehearse I won’t look spontaneous.”

And then they stand up to speak and they show themselves to be painfully awkward amateurs. The audience often responds by taking out their cell phones, at first pretending to respond to “urgent” text messages, but then moving on to simply refreshing their Facebook page. After all, they’re thinking, if the speaker didn’t respect us enough to prepare, why should we respect him or her enough to listen?

Practicing doesn’t mean practicing a little.

For a 10-minute speech, most people need to practice 10 times before their body develops “muscle memory” — the ability to physically deliver the speech even when distracted.

After those 10 practice runs however, they usually find that their spirit is gone. Their body remembers the words, but they feel like a piece of wood, a bag of boring flesh with no spirit, and they are usually quite correct.

It might sound strange, but the key to getting your spirit back is to keep practicing. Think of crossing a river. If you are going to cross a river, go all the way. Don’t go to the middle, say, “I don’t like being wet,” and then turn around and go back.

For most people, the spirit starts to come back in practice rounds 10-15. However, during those practice rounds (10-15), your brain and your spirit will fight for control. You might get tired during the speech. You might even feel like you are doing worse, and it might be true — you might actually start getting worse.

But keep going. Push through these practice rounds.

Usually, around practice round 16, your brain will start to relax and surrender. Your spirit will take over, and your natural body language will return. Now you’ll be even more relaxed though, because you don’t have to think about the words anymore. Your spirit can express itself freely.

Keep practicing, even though you’re feeling better. In practice rounds 16-25, you will be teaching your spirit how to fly around the room. You will be teaching it to look into people’s eyes, to watch their faces, to get into their heads and their hearts. You will be teaching it how to make them smile, or frown, or laugh, or cry. And then, around practice round 25, you will realize you have taught your body and spirit how to do something they didn’t know how to do 25 practice rounds ago.

The audience will watch your speech and marvel at how great it is, and they will wish they could stand up there and speak like you do. They’ll remark on how natural and spontaneous you are, and, unless you tell them, only you will know that the reason you look so spontaneous is because you practiced so much.

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