In 2008, Barack Obama walked onto a stage in Clearwater, Florida to deliver a speech. It was the usual sequence. He spoke about the current issues, the challenges ahead and why he was the man for the job.
Unlike his other speeches, however, there was no deafening sound of applause at the end. There were no screaming fans or the storm of camera flashes. In fact, it was dead quiet.
It was a rehearsal. Obama’s team had set up a mock stage for him to practise for his then upcoming debate with John McCain.
The question is, why go to such lengths to practise a speech? Why build a full size debate stage? Why not just practise in his hotel room. After all, there was sufficient space and privacy there.
The Power of Specific Practise
The answer comes down to specificity. Obama’s team wanted to recreate the specifics of delivering the speech in that situation. They wanted him to get used to the acoustics of that environment, the lighting, the view and the nerves. As one of his aides, Robert Gibbs, later said, “We wanted him, when he went into the actual debate, to feel like he had been there before.”
It was effort well spent. The specific practise allowed his team to pick out a number of stylistic problems that they would have otherwise missed.
“When he wanted to look serious,” explained another of Obama’s team, Richard Wolfe, “his facial expression could often appear angry rather than concerned. Second, he often cocked his head to listen to his rivals, which left him looking snootily down his nose.”
In a performance where body language matters as much as the words being uttered, picking out these stylistic kinks and resolving them beforehand no doubt allowed Obama to deliver a high impact debate on the big day.
Feeling Like You Have Been There Before
While most people understand the power of practise (see, The Secret to Obama’s Effortless Style), few understand the importance of making it specific.
Specific practise allows you to acclimatize yourself to the pressure, the nerves and the peculiarities of the situation. You learn to become comfortable being uncomfortable and, like Obama, pick out the little issues that stop your work and performances going from good to great.
Take a lesson out of Obama’s book and make your practise as specific as possible. If you are going to deliver a presentation, practise delivering it on a projector in front of a few people. If you are preparing for an interview, practice answering questions in front of a panel of people or and do it without your notes.
Small Changes, Big Differences
In the end, the gain may not be huge and the difference may not be great – but neither was the one between the man who won gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics 100m men’s sprint(Usain Bolt, 9.69 seconds) and the one who won the silver (Richard Thompson, 9.89 seconds) – just 2 milliseconds.
Yet Bolt went on make $10,000,000 USD a year in endorsements, appearance fees, and prize money, while Thompson banked a measly $1,000,000, which, given the exchange rate at the time (0.16 cents), equaled a humble $160,000 USD.
In many pursuits small differences lead to significantly different results and specific practice is one of the most powerful ways to gain those small competitive advantages.
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