The Power of the Present and Practice in Baseball and Presentation

I recently came across an op-ed article in the New York Times by David Brooks that struck me as significant for the art of presenting. In his piece, Brooks examines “The Mental ABC’s of Pitching” by the sport psychologist H.A. Dorfman. While the book is geared towards professional pitchers, I feel that Dorfman’s advice can be extended quite naturally to presentations. As told by Brooks, what Dorfman “offers is to liberate people from what you might call the tyranny of the scattered mind.” This sort of tyranny is not closeted to baseball however: any highly demanding activity can be undermined by a lack of focus. The everyday mind is like an out-of-control chariot: without direction and jumping from one thing to the next, it is almost impossible to prepare for anything important. This is where mental discipline comes in.

Coming back to the baseball analogy, I had a coach in high-school tell me that “you play the way you practice;” as I’ve grown older, I continue to see the truth of this statement. When it comes to public speaking and presenting, practice is crucial. As Dorfman continues: “Self-discipline is a form of freedom. Freedom from laziness and lethargy, freedom from expectations and demands of others, freedom from weakness and fear — and doubt.” This is completely consistent with the story I tell in the workshop about Eugen Herrigel from “Zen in the Art of Archery.” Herrigel spent 1 year learning how to stand, how to hold the bow and how to breathe before he ever put an arrow to the blow string. That intense practice frees up the mind from other distractions. This is also necessary in presenting. Now while I don’t suggest you take a year to learn how to introduce yourself, nonetheless, master presenters must own their material and their technique in a way that they don’t even have to think about it. It must come as naturally as the rains in spring or “as snow falls from a bamboo leaf” as Herrigel’s instructor Master Kenzo Awa put it.

How do we practice to achieve such fluidity? For starters, most people forget that it is equally important to practice non-verbal delivery skills as well verbal delivery skills. This sort of practice helps to cement your technique in your muscle memory. If you do not practice this way, you are less likely to meet with success.

Returning to Brooks analysis of Dorfman, “by putting the task at the center, Dorfman illuminates the way the body and the mind communicate with each other. Once there were intellectuals who thought the mind existed above the body, but that’s been blown away by evidence. In fact, it’s easiest to change the mind by changing behavior, and that’s probably as true in the office as on the mound.” This is the essence of the teaching of our workshop. Motivation follows action, not vice versa; change your behavior and you will change the way you think. As E. Thomas Berr PH.D put it in the The Tao of Sales: “It is easier to act yourself into a new way of thinking than think yourself into a new way of acting.” Indeed, this is the essence of the Zen way: through intense practice of mindfulness (being present right here, right now) the mind can be calmed and focused, not the other way around.

Brooks continues that “There are two locales in a pitcher’s universe — on the mound and off the mound. Off the mound is for thinking about the past and future, on the mound is for thinking about the present.” How this can be related back to presenting is that there are two geographies for the master presenter: “on stage” and “off stage;” off stage is the correct place for thinking about past and future, on stage, however, is for thinking about the present only. This includes focusing on the material as well as the audience in a way that is both flexible and unforced.

To get to this point I suggest that you don’t stop yourself in your practice sessions. What would you do if you made a mistake or misspoke? Practice it like you would in front of an audience. Then you’ll be more adept at reacting and thinking on your feet; there is no substitute for this type of practice. Mark Twain said it best, “It usually takes more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.”

Just like a baseball game, a presentation is a spectacle, with a thousand points of interest. Nonetheless, master presenters reduce it all to a series of simple tasks: a presenters personality isn’t at the center, nor is their talent. This is often where presenters go wrong. They focus too much on how the audience is viewing them or on how competent or incompetent they are being. An excellent presentation however is not about the false-self of the presenter or the audience: at the center is the task of presenting well, nothing else. By putting the task at the center, just as Dorfman states, the presenter helps to quiet the self, pushing away their own qualities—their expectations, nerve and ego—and by doing such they can calmly and adeptly connect with the audience, their material, and deliver a masterful presentation every time.

Author's Bio: 

Terry Gault is a coach, trainer, and consultant in presentation and communications skills. He has worked with clients such as Oracle, GE, Wells Fargo, Visa, EMC, eBay, etc. In addition, Terry oversees all curriculum, services and selection, training and development of all trainers and facilitators for The Henderson Group. He also had a 20 year career in the theater working as an actor, teacher, director, writer and producer. In addition, Terry worked in sales and management in the building industry for over 10 years. Please visit www.hendersongroup.com/art_pres_info.asp for more information.