I saw a study recently in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review (I read these things so you don’t have to) that caught my eye because it addressed indirectly a problem known to public speakers everywhere: perfectionism.

The study is what as known as a meta-analysis, meaning that it’s a statistical analysis of many studies. That helps get you around some typical problems of psychological research: small sample size and un-replicable results.

Enough of that; the point is that this review has some strength to it. And it found that there are two kinds of perfectionism. One kills, the other helps. It’s important for public speakers to understand the difference.

The first kind, the killing kind, involves setting impossibly high standards for yourself and then obsessing about the inevitable times you fall short of perfection.

Now that’s particularly relevant for public speakers, because the nature of the speaking beast is imperfect, and the competition is fierce, and the expectations are high, and lots of people are looking at you, and we all want to deliver a perfect performance every time. And when we don’t, there’s plenty of opportunity to obsess about the imperfect results forever. There may even be video proof that we were imperfect.

Public speaking is inherently imperfect. Leaving aside the improbability of delivering a word-perfect speech the same way every time (which would probably be deadly dull, not perfect), public speaking involves an audience. If you focus entirely on yourself in an effort to be perfect, you’re forgetting the more important half of the equation – the people who have to get your presentation for it to mean anything.

If it were just all about being perfect, after all, you would just deliver the speech to yourself. Leave out the imperfectly attentive, imperfectly understanding, imperfectly prepped audience and perfection may even be possible! But the result would not be a presentation. It would be an unattended soliloquy.

So don’t obsess about the results of an imperfect speech. If you do, you are prone to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, worrying about everything, including letting others down, burnout, cynicism, damaging interpersonal relationships and – wait for it – early death. According to the study.

Instead, set realistic, but high goals for yourself and work toward them. Period. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with both being aware of what constitutes high achievement in the area you care about – like public speaking – and doing your best to work toward it proactively. Just don’t beat yourself up afterwards when the results fall short of those high goals.

One of the study’s two authors, Dr. Andrew Hill, noted “People need to learn to challenge the irrational beliefs that underlie perfectionistic concerns by setting realistic goals, accepting failure as a learning opportunity, and forgiving themselves when they fail. Creating environments where creativity, effort and perseverance are valued also would help.”

I struggle constantly with these issues myself. The other day I agreed to give a speech, and wrestled a bit with the conference organizers about all the things I should cover in the presentation. Because I’m a recovering perfectionist, I agreed to everything. When it came time to speak, I soon realized that there was no way that we would cover everything on the agenda.

And another tendency I have is to try to make all speeches real by focusing on the audience in front of me, and making the speech as interactive as possible given the circumstances. That sometimes means that I take longer with audience questions than is kind to the agenda.

In this particular case, both the overstuffed agenda and the great questions from the audience collided and I covered only about two thirds of what we agreed upon in advance. The organizers beat me up a little afterward about what was not covered.

So did I.

Public speaking is inherently imperfect.

So don’t obsess about the results of an imperfect speech.

Instead, set realistic, but high goals for yourself and work toward them. Period.

5 Comments

  1. Oh Nick, I am thrilled that you have found this article in Psychology Today and have connected perfectionism to fear of public speaking! My life’s work has been to help myself and others to transform stage fright into authentic speaking and to teach us all to let go of perfectionism around the skill of public speaking.

    It is wonderful that both you and John Zimmer are giving voice to this because you are both such clear voices for public speaking mastery! The more of us who shine the light on the old style of speech coaching that reveres trying to be perfect, the more people can relax and find their authentic voice when speaking.

    Perfectionism is the thing that drives all dysfunctional behavior from family relations to corporate anxiety. We must all wrestle with perfectionism to become whole, balanced and truly effective in our lives and in our speaking.

    The key that unlocks perfectionism is authenticity. When we commit to being real, rather than perfect, we start to free ourselves to speak from our core Self and to be truly effective.

    In 2009, I published my book It’s Your Time to Shine: How to Overcome Fear of Public Speaking, Develop Authentic Presence and Speak from Your Heart. Your readers can view a complimentary chapter 1 in which I address perfectionism in public speaking. It can be downloaded as a pdf at http://www.self-expression.com/Your-Time-to-Shine-promo.pdf

    Thanks for this post and for your amazing work in the area of public speaking!

    Sandra Zimmer
    http://www.self-expression.com

    1. Hi, Sandra, and thanks so much for your wonderful comments, insights, links and work! (Just one note: the article was in Personality and Social Psychology Review, not Psychology Today. Not that I’m trying to be perfect here or anything like that:-))

  2. Perfectionism is our enemy in so many places in life. But with public speaking correcting yourself (unless it’s a really, really, big blunder) only draws attention to your mistake. Let it slip and there’s a very high chance your audience will still be perfectly happy with you.

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